Fighting ISIS: U.S. still seeking a strategy that works

Iraqi Shiite militia leaders blame the U.S. for failures in battle against ISIS, while Washington says Shiite militias are "unhelpful," now re-assesses war strategy

More than 13,000 bombs have been dropped from the skies above Syria and Iraq by the U.S. military and its allies as part of the international campaign to destroy ISIS. The cost, mostly picked up by U.S. taxpayers, is more than $2.5 billion.

Yet to one of the most powerful Iraqi leaders on the ground, this is nowhere near enough. Just days ago, Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Brigade, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group, told Vocativ that depending upon the U.S. in the fight against ISIS was like “relying on a mirage.” His comments coupled with the Obama administration’s reaction to the Iraqi army’s inability to fight ISIS draw attention to the deep-rooted Iraqi resentment toward the U.S. and the White House’s inability to find a strategy to defeat ISIS without putting the lives of American troops at great risk.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a former commander who served in Iraq, called Amiri’s disdain for America “fascinating to me, because we’ve been providing a significant amount of air support and training requirements.” “We spent the last 12 years there training and equipping the entire Iraqi army,” Hertling noted. Iraq’s security forces came apart during battles with ISIS, particularly in the country’s north last year, he said, “because of a lack of attention from the Iraqi leadership.”

Hertling echoed comments from Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who said Iraqis lost the city of Ramadi because they “just showed no will to fight.” Carter told CNN last week that Iraqi security forces, even under relentless attack by ISIS fighters and suicide bombers, had the upper hand. “They were not outnumbered, but in fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force. And yet they failed to fight.”

Al-Amiri’s attempts to blame the U.S., said Hertling, were “a tool to shame us into doing it for them. There’s a desire for someone else to do it for you and a lack of conviction and will,” the retired general told Vocativ. “All that is a part of it.”

There are some 200 American advisors at al-Asad base, around 70 miles north of Ramadi in Anbar province. They’re currently there to help train and advise the Iraqi security forces. Back in Washington, after Ramadi fell, Carter gathered senior leaders to re-assess the U.S. role in the fight against ISIS. “So we are looking, I can’t describe to you what the possibilities are because folks are looking at them right now,” Carter told reporters during a military flight to Asia. But he did mention the prospect of arming the Sunni tribes, a tactic that the Bush administration resorted to in 2006 and 2007, but which then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opposed, because he believed a Sunni militia would eventually turn on Shiite militias.

The current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who Washington believes is more of a centrist than the sectarian al-Maliki, may be willing to cooperate more. “Prime Minister Abadi is working very hard to bring together the different parts of Iraq behind exactly what he and we agree is the best approach, which is a multi-sectarian Iraq, to defeating ISIL,” said Carter, using another name for ISIS, which is also called the Islamic State. “That is our common objective, and everything that we do in the way of train and equip is in service of that common objective.”

But Abadi may be squeezed politically by powerful Shiite blocs in parliament, and the ever-present influence of Iran, which was never more apparent than on the front lines of the latest fighting in Anbar. In a week in which Iraqi Hezbollah—which is closely tied to Iran—paraded a string of prisoners its members claim are captured ISIS fighters and al-Amiri called for senior Iraqi army officers to be executed for failing to keep Ramadi, the Shiite militias declared a new campaign to retake Anbar’s capital city with a heavily sectarian name, “Labayk ya Hussein,” or “in your service Hussein,” after one of the Shiites’ most revered imams. (The Pentagon said the name was “unhelpful.”)

The U.S. has been reluctant to deal directly with the Shiite militias, but the groups and the manpower they bring into battle have become key to all the major military campaigns to fight ISIS, even though it is not clear who they take their directions from. In contrast to the 7,000 Iraqi troops who have recently completed the latest round of training by their U.S. advisors, Hertling says those who make up the militias’ ranks are untrained and unskilled. “They’re just men with guns, they’re not trained in the military,” he said. “The coordinating is going to be spurious, you’re not going to see an overarching command structure.”

Hertling said the key to how the battle for Ramadi will impact the rest of the country depends less on how the militias perform during the fighting and more on what they do after. When Iraqi forces coupled with militia re-took the northern city of Tikrit from ISIS in March this year, bands of militia embarked on a rampage of looting and lynching. Any retribution against the citizens of Ramadi will only exacerbate tensions between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites, Hertling said.

And while Shiite militias vow that ISIS will never take Baghdad, the capital continued to be struck by violence Friday. Two of the city’s major hotels were hit by car bombs, killing at least 15 people. While no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, there are fears that ISIS has made some inroads into the city, as it has promised in the past.

Jamie Tarabay is a reporter for Vocativ. Follow her on Twitter: @jamietarabay. Lindsey Snell is a freelancer journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @lindseysnell