George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and on the board of the CDA Institute. He has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and with NATO, and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders.
With the city of Ramadi falling, almost completing the Islamic State's takeover of Iraq's Anbar province, the earlier "not to worry" line out of Washington is giving way to questions. With Canada investing up to $500-million before the current 18-month commitment is over, it may be time to question whether the entire strategy should be reviewed.
Canada does not decide the Iraqi strategy. Its choices are limited to whether it will participate, and with how much. The strategy itself is formed in Washington.
When it was announced by President Barack Obama in September, 2014, it revolved around several presumptions.
The first and most important was no U.S. boots on the ground: a U.S. ground force would not shoulder the responsibility of defeating IS. That would have to be done by Iraq and some unknown or undefined proxy in Syria. That decision limited the choices to air power and training the Iraqis.
Iraq had an army, and so the United States defined the campaign as a bid to destroy IS there, and degrade it elsewhere. But very quickly it became apparent that the Iraqi army was rotted from within and could not defend even what it controlled, much less recapture lands from IS.
Before IS could be destroyed in Iraq, it would have to be contained and degraded to buy time for the Iraqi military to be reconstituted somehow through intensive training. Canada signed on for these parts, contributing aircraft in support of the containment and degradation strategy, and advisers for the regeneration of the army. More accurately, it is training Kurdish peshmerga, whose future in a hoped-for unified Iraq is much in question.
So nine months into this campaign, is the strategy working, and are the losses of cities like Ramadi temporary setbacks – just bricks and mortar and not symbolic of anything, to paraphrase General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in recent congressional testimony?
Clearly, the strategy has severe problems. To have any chance of succeeding in its present form, it must be seriously re-tuned or altered.
The first is that the air campaign is proving unable to contain IS. It has had successes, most notably in areas like Kobani or around Mosul, where it has degraded IS at the fringes. On the one hand, where it has utterly rooted out IS, as in Kobani, it is difficult to claim a victory after four months of bombing left the city in ruins and likely in need of billions of dollars to repair. On the other hand, while the IS advance has been stopped in places, not enough air power is available to gut the economic wherewithal of IS. The recent success in Ramadi demonstrates that IS can move where air power is not. The coalition's undisputed technical superiority does not translate into numerical sufficiency.
When markets are full of produce in Mosul, and IS and civilians alike are driving vehicles, it means IS can still move, fuel its vehicles, arm its weapons and feed its soldiers. Even control of key locations such as the oil fields on Baiji and its refineries are still in dispute.
And so, as a very first step in giving the current strategy a chance to work, the air campaign must be seriously enlarged and the movement of people, goods and fighters in and between population centres IS controls must be halted – in essence, an air blockade.
On the ground, it is a different story. To roll back IS, the plan calls for 12 brigades to be trained – nine Iraqi and three Kurdish ones; nearly 60,000 soldiers who appear far from ready. And so the training contingents of Western advisers need to be substantially increased. In the meantime, the coalition is stuck with Iranian-backed Shia militias, whose use could fuel IS propaganda and defeat the purpose of not allowing a full-out sectarian war to develop.
Without this recalibration, the only hope of making this strategy work would be to bring U.S. ground forces once again into the region.
And so, the fall of Ramadi must make all coalition members review the current strategy. As for Canada, if changes are not in the offing, it may be better just to come back home in full awareness that in doing so, we would be permitting one of the most gruesome regimes in recent history to exist.