Despite the Islamic State militants’ defeat of U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces in Ramadi, the Obama administration says it does not plan to change its strategy – a resolute stance that has drawn sharp criticism from a top congressional Republican and some military analysts.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Tuesday said President Barack Obama’s policy in the Iraqi conflict – employing airstrikes but no commitment of U.S. ground troops – overall has been a success.
"There have been areas of setback, too," Earnest said at a news briefing, acknowledging Sunday’s rout in the provincial capital of Anbar province. "That doesn’t mean that the strategy needs be discarded."
But on Capitol Hill, the leader of the U.S. House of Representatives reached a different conclusion.
"The president's plan isn't working," Speaker John Boehner said. "It's time for him to come up with overarching strategy to defeat the ongoing terrorist threat." He said Ramadi proves "hope is not a strategy."
Arming the enemy
The Defense Department said the attempt to reclaim Ramadi became more challenging when Iraqi security forces abandoned a vast array of American military equipment as they fled in the face of Sunday's onslaught by the Islamic State fighters.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said Iraqi troops left behind dozens of U.S. military vehicles, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces. He said some of the vehicles were in working condition, others not.
There is plenty of blame to go around, Warren said: "The fall of Ramadi was a failure of a lot of things – leadership being one of them, tactics being one of them. War is a fluid thing. The enemy does get a vote."
Also Tuesday, Iraqi security forces and several thousand Shi'ite militia members massed outside Ramadi ahead of a possible offensive to try to recapture the city from the militants.
Playing down defeat
The administration has been playing down the defeat of U.S.-backed Iraqi forces, casting it against an even longer list of victories in places such as Kobani, Mosul Dam and Tikrit. There, Iraqi forces, backed by coalition air strikes and intelligence, have driven out Islamic State fighters in recent months.
Still, images of fleeing civilians and hundreds of Iraqi soldiers retreating from Ramadi on Tuesday raised questions about the effectiveness of the administration’s policy.
Some analysts say the Islamic State’s assault on Ramadi could have been avoided, or at the very least, foreseen.
A report Tuesday by Kimberly Kagan and Frederick Kagan, military historians at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington research organization, criticizes Obama’s approach, saying the president reacted slowly and reluctantly to the initial Islamic State surge last June. It says U.S. airstrikes since then have destroyed Islamic State targets and killed fighters by the thousands, but have allowed the group to retain a haven in Syria and maneuver freely within Iraq.
Obama and Carter confer
Obama met with Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at the White House Tuesday for what officials said was a routine meeting expected to be dominated by discussion of the way forward in Iraq.
The U.S. leader, in announcing his strategy last year to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State group, ruled out sending U.S. ground forces back to Iraq. Changing course is unlikely for Obama, who was elected on an anti-war platform and on promises to end U.S. involvement in Iraq. White House officials on Tuesday said the president is reviewing the situation in Ramadi and they suggested that adjustments of the current strategy are under consideration.
Analysts say their victory at Ramadi may give Islamic State fighters momentum to recapture Mosul while gaining ground in Syria.
This momentum, analysts say, could drive the militants to the Iraqi capital.
"If we were to decide that just because ISIL has not made a play for Baghdad recently that it’s lost interest – that would be a big mistake on our part," said Michael O’Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
But White House spokesman Josh Earnest blamed Congress for not giving Obama the new military authorization he asked for to wage war against the Islamic State.
"At some point, somebody in Congress needs to assume responsibility for this and not just complain about it the whole time," Earnest said.
VOA contributors to this report include Carla Babb from the Pentagon and Cindy Saine from Capitol Hill.