It’s petty and it’s pitiful.
Watching the US, Iran and their client government in Baghdad spar and bicker like schoolboys after getting their butts kicked, yet again, by a group of rogue jihadists, borders on the surreal.
Their public taunting and recrimination after the fall of Ramadi has exposed the childish and bankrupt politics that lies beneath their military incompetence. But it may also signal something far more sinister.
Just how major is the setback? Is it merely “tactical” – as US President Barack Obama contends – or is it the scandalous embarrassment his generals portray it to be? How strategic is the failure? How steep is the slippery slope towards total humiliation?
Has the real fight to liberate Anbar finally begun, or is the fight in defence of Baghdad?
No stomach to fight
Last weekend, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter attributed the recent setbacks around Ramadi to a lack of will on the part of the Iraqi military.
Iranian and Iraqi officials were quick to shoot back. It’s Washington that lacks any will, claimed General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force – it’s the US that doesn’t have the stomach to fight.
For the Iranian general, Washington is complicit. The Americans are in bed with ISIL. It’s a conspiracy.
According to Army Brigadier General Kurt Crytzer, who has been in charge of US special operations forces in Iraq for the past six months: “Many Iraqi troops believe American forces are secretly supplying [ISIL].”
While the general contends that this “misunderstanding” is the result of a public diplomacy failure, he says it’s widespread (even Soleimani “believes” it), and could leave US forces “vulnerable to reprisal attacks from their nominal allies in the fight against the militants”.
Mind you, the bickering in Washington over the successes and failures of the US propaganda war has been going on since 9/11. But it has gained urgency and momentum with ISIL’s phenomenal success at recruiting young people from around the world.
Once again, the Pentagon is ‘surprised’ and its Iraqi minions are astonished. But if ‘sudden’ and ‘unexpected’ are critical components of any surprise, how could it be a surprise to see ISIL gaining ground a year after more of the same?
It’s not the first, second or even third time, alas. It’s been a year since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took over Mosul (and Raqqa in Syria) causing a major shock and awe in Washington and Baghdad. Since then, it has achieved a number of gains culminating in the takeover of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province (as well as Palmyra in Syria).
Once again, the Pentagon is “surprised” and its Iraqi minions are astonished. But if “sudden” and “unexpected” are critical components of any surprise, how could it be a surprise to see ISIL gaining ground a year after it did more of the same?
For some time now, Washington and Baghdad have claimed that defeating ISIL will take time, but that they’ve at least succeeded in containing its expansion. Well, that doesn’t seem to have worked either, does it?
It is now amply clear that despite hefty US military and operational assistance, despite major Iraqi deployments in the Anbar province, and despite heavy US aerial bombardment of ISIL, the Iraqi government is unable to contain – let alone defeat – ISIL.
And the most intriguing part is the fact that Washington and Baghdad are not even fighting a classical guerrilla group hidden in the middle of a jungle or in a rugged mountainous terrain. ISIL behaves like a regular army, moving in open spaces (the desert for God’s sake!), occupying military bases, taking over cities, providing services and imposing their own system of governance.
They even paraded their way through major Iraqi cities like Ramadi and Mosul.
Absence of political will
To be sure, the absence of will is not exactly military, let alone psychological; it’s political.
After all, why would mainly Shia government troops want to “liberate” Sunnis who loathe them as much as they loathe ISIL? And why would the corrupt mid and upper leadership of the military and Special Forces be willing to fight when their leadership is divided (between Haider al-Abbadi and Nouri al-Maliki), or when the Iranian-backed militias and US bombers could do their bidding just the same?
It’s clear to every rational and relevant decision-maker in Baghdad and Washington, that Shia-Sunni reconciliation is a precondition for winning against ISIL.
Abbadi replaced Maliki after the latter failed to bridge the sectarian divide, and even deepened it. Supported by Washington, Abbadi was expected to rectify the situation in order to improve his political standing in the country and improve his military chances against ISIL.
For a short while, it seemed that the new Iraqi government was making some headway against ISIL, notably in Tikrit. And it was hoped this would create a domino effect leading to the defeat of ISIL in other Sunni areas without the need for political reconciliation.
That prompted a Washington summit in April where the US president reportedly reminded the Iraqi prime minister of the importance of national reconciliation and asked him to move away from Iranian influence. For his part, Abbadi asked Obama for more sophisticated weapons and sustained US aerial support. Neither happened.
After a protracted conflict, Ramadi finally fell to ISIL, resulting in an embarrassing setback – not to say humiliating defeat.
But is that all there is to it? What next?
The endgame in Iraq
For both Washington and Tehran, the endgame in Iraq will be a game without end – a cynical and dangerous game.
Public recrimination aside, the Pentagon is not entirely unhappy watching the Iran-backed militias and ISIL militants fight it out until both sides are totally worn out. This partially explains why Obama changed his mind and gave Abbadi the green light to involve the Iranians in this fight.
But the Iranians aren’t exactly displeased to see the US repeatedly embarrassed every time it gets involved in a Middle East conflict.
Both have suspiciously been betting on a protracted conflict that shatters their enemies, bearing in mind that the “enemy of my enemy” could be a tactical friend – if only for a while.
At this stage, both are seriously shamed by ISIL’s string of victories. All the while, Iraqis continue to suffer and die. The same goes for Syria.
Come now, let’s be honest about this. Do generals and decision-makers in Washington and Tehran (not to mention a whole lot of others) care about human life in Ramadi or Palmyra? Do they give a damn about Mosul or Raqqa, other than making strategic points and settling political scores?
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.