Monday, January 18, 2016

Ramadi is still a ghost town after being liberated from ISIS by the Iraqi government. Reuters.

A burnt out ambulance in Ramadi. Reuters. 

The city of Ramadi in Iraq is a bombed out ghost town after the liberation of the city from ISIS. Reuters. Ramadi was one of the first major victories against ISIS since the war began, but the cost was very high. Iraqi security forces used heavy handed tactics that destroyed much of the city. Small groups of special forces attacked the city and depended heavily on US airstrikes to kill the enemy. Army and police units have been relegated to a backup role. This strategy continues today, even though Ramadi was liberated last month. Bombs continue to fall on isolated ISIS fighters as they send snipers and car bombs into the city.  The city is largely cleared of civilians with many of them still waiting in refugee camps. They can not return to the city due to the security situation and the fact that ISIS has placed booby traps and explosives in many of their homes. 

My Comment:
I'm reminded of a quote that came out of the Vietnam War, possibly a false one. An AP reporter was embedded with troops fighting near the city of Ben Tre in Vietnam and a US Army major said something to the effect of "it became necessary to destroy the town to save it". Though that quote may never have happened you could write the same thing about Ramadi. The city was largely destroyed in the battle to save it. 

The Reuters report goes on to say that the entire city is full of destroyed vehicles and bombed out buildings. Many of the people that left the city will not have a home to go back too, and the ones that do will have to wait until their homes are cleared for booby traps. And even if they do have a place to live, it's still not safe in the city. ISIS is still very much a party of the landscape in Ramadi.

I am not sure if it is safe to say that calling Ramadi liberated was premature. I do think that ISIS's power base in the city has been broken, utterly and completely. They don't control the people there and they aren't gathering resources there anymore. But ISIS is still very active in the city. The report said that ISIS is still sending in gunmen and suicide bombings and that matches what I have read in other sources. Indeed, when Ramadi was first liberated I speculated that fighting would continue for some time, even after the major pockets of resistance were wiped out. Looks like I was right. 

I have to say I am not impressed with how the Iraqis retook and are holding Ramadi. It seems like they are almost entirely dependent on American air power to take and hold ground from ISIS. Even though they outnumbered ISIS in the city during the battle they could never take advantage of their numbers to wipe ISIS out. Instead they had to have this slow slog with special forces and airstrikes. My guess is that their main forces are either too weak or too cowardly to fight. I wonder if Iraq had deployed its regular units if they would have just broken like they have so many times in the past. 

That isn't to say that their strategy failed. ISIS was broken in Ramadi and the current phase of the battle is largely a defensive one. Iraq controls the city, even if ISIS still tries to contest it. My problem is that if this is the way Iraq is going to liberate areas taken by ISIS it will take them forever to kick ISIS out of Iraq. The slow, deliberate pace they are setting is going to make it so it takes years for them to recapture Mosul, Fallujah and Hit. 

And it is going to take a huge toll on their special forces. The Iraqi special forces are rather good, especially compared to regular Iraqi units, but they aren't immortal. Depending on them almost exclusively to retake cities is not going to work out. Casualties will mount even if they are extremely careful and the men involved will become exhausted. I don't think it is sustainable for such small units to be relied on so extensively. Iraq may be able to replicate their success a few more times but sooner or later these special forces units are going to break down. 

Iraq has to get their main forces involved in the battles against ISIS and they have to learn to not be so dependent on US airpower. After all, who knows what will happen to that air support after the next presidential elections? Though I don't think it will happen, the worst case scenario for the Iraqis is that we pull out our planes to focus on other targets, or even withdraw from the region entirely. If that happens, the Iraqis are going to have to fight, and their special forces aren't going to be enough to win the war. Though the Iraqi Army was largely destroyed in the battle of Mosul they need to rise from the ashes of that defeat and reform their military, sooner rather then later. The troops that they have now can't just be left to hold territory in a reserve role. They need to fight and fight hard. 

I'm also worried that these slow, plodding tactics will exacerbate the European migrant crisis. After all, these Iraq civilians that live in Ramadi may decide that they have no home to go back too and that it is probably worth it to try and head to Europe. Destroying the city may have been militarily necessary, but it is going to have reverberations throughout the world. And if this is really the way that Iraq is going to defeat ISIS then the problem is only going to get worse as people see their homes destroyed or simply get tired of waiting for a liberation that may never come. I am not sure if a extremely bloody house to house clearing operation would be militarily possible but I am guessing that there would be more left afterwards then the air power option. Either way though, people aren't going to want to go back, and many of them may very well head to Europe. 

As for ISIS, it seems clear that they want to punish the Iraqis for taking back Ramadi. These kinds of small attacks and probes won't take back the city but they will inflict casualties. I'm not sure how wise it is for them to do so because Iraq is fairly strong in the city right now. They should probably start looking for softer targets. ISIS does seemed to be more focused on Syria, with the battle for Dier Ez Zor gathering most of the attention. Perhaps a few raiding parties and suicide bombing are all they can spare for Ramadi right now... 

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