The Iraqi army announced yesterday that it had successfully driven ISIS out of Ramadi, the same city where it experienced an embarrassing rout at the hands of Islamic militants only 18 months ago. Aided by U.S. air strikes, Iraqi special forces had surrounded a final set of government buildings that were being held by a handful of holdout ISIS fighters, and were clearing the area of booby traps.
The Iraqi forces successfully coordinated with coalition air power, and also showed that they had internalized months of training by U.S. advisors: The army crossed the Euphrates using pontoon bridges, and then surprised ISIS with a flanking maneuver rather than driving headlong into the city. “The enemy never thought we would do it this way,” an Iraqi army spokesman told reporters. “The enemy couldn’t contain their surprise and fell in complete confusion.”
This story shows that the American-assisted war of attrition against ISIS is showing results. Good.
But the real target in the campaign against ISIS isn’t the geographical territory the group controls—it’s the power of the myth of the caliphate and the radical jihadi ideology that needs to be broken. Hammering away at ISIS on the ground helps to diminish its appeal and undermines the myth at its core, but the jihadis have been beaten before and bounced back. This is going to be a long process, and there’s a lot more fight ahead.
The most serious challenge ISIS may present in the future may be what happens as the “caliphate” shrinks and then ultimately, one hopes, falls—and tens of thousands of trained fighters scurry away to continue the struggle in other places. The time to be thinking about the endgame is now. The defeat of ISIS needs to be total and crushing, and its fighters need to be captured and dealt with. Fanatical hate-crazed rapists, looters, and murderers cannot be unleashed on the world when this is done. Guantanamo isn’t big enough to hold them: What’s the plan?
Additionally, the core strategic dilemma isn’t resolved. The fall of Ramadi strengthens the Shi’a government in Iraq and the Russia-Iran-Assad axis whose growing strength is the root cause of the current sectarian war. The fall of Ramadi is a setback for ISIS, but unless the U.S. and the West more generally develop a coherent regional strategy, this development makes a deepening of the sectarian war more, not less, likely.