The Washington Post reports that Iraqi troops, supported by U.S. air strikes, have stormed into the center of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. At last word, they hadn’t yet retaken the city from ISIS, but their prospects of doing so seem excellent.
According to the Post, this is the first major offensive by the Iraqi army in which Shiite militias have been largely excluded. Thus, it can be viewed as a test of the army’s ability to go it alone. If so, the army is passing the test.
However, there are reports that ISIS has pretty much abandoned Ramadi, leaving only a few hundred fighters plus the inevitable deadly explosives devices and booby traps.
Before the assault, the Iraqis dropped leaflets urging civilians to evacuate. However, ISIS is believed to have prevented them from doing so. Since the assault, a few hundred civilians have been able to reach Iraqi forces, but thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, are said still to be trapped alongside ISIS fighters, who will use them as shields.
Retaking Ramadi, which is about 80 miles from Baghdad, would have both strategic and symbolic significance. Recall that when the city fell to ISIS, Iraqis blamed the U.S. for not providing enough air support, while U.S. officials didn’t even try to hide their contempt for Iraqi forces, who withdrew despite their superior numbers.
Sadly both parties — the Iraqi military and the U.S. officials — had a point. Happily, both parties have been up to the task this time.
ISIS, meanwhile, continues to hold substantial territory in Iraq and Syria, and continues to expand into other areas extending from North Africa to Southern Asia. The Post reports that it is increasingly active in Eastern Afghanistan. There, its forces reportedly consist of disaffected Taliban and tribal militants from Pakistan, Uzbek and Chechen fighters, and now fighters from the Middle East.
Unfortunately, the air power being used to set back ISIS in Iraq and Syria apparently is unavailable in Eastern Afghanistan, where NATO no longer is flying. Nor does the Afghan government inspire confidence. One provincial leader says that small numbers of Daesh (ISIS) fighters have been able to capture districts where the government has sent 2,000 troops.
We may be witnessing a replay of the latter part of the last decade, when the tide turned against al Qaeda in Iraq (more decisively than it is turning against ISIS now), but the Taliban made major headway in Afghanistan. Indeed, Helmand province in Southern Afghanistan is now under serious pressure from the Taliban.
Recall that candidate Barack Obama castigated the Bush administration for losing its focus. His argument was not entirely without justification.
Secretary of Defense Carter has predicted a “hard” year ahead in the fight against the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan. The Taliban and ISIS will, no doubt, fight hard. Whether resistance will be effective probably depends on whether the Obama administration chooses to refocus on Afghanistan.