Ramadi's fall signals a strategy in tatters

The video's shot by someone who was standing by the side of the road, slightly east of Ramadi. First an Iraqi military truck speeds past, fleeing as fast as it can. Then a crazy, incoherent procession, one vehicle after another, scooting hell-for-leather out of the city as fast as they can drive.

 A Humvee rattles along on run-flat tyres – no one bothers stopping to change them because everyone shares the same objective; getting out as fast as they can. Something appears to fall out of a truck to the dirt road, but the rout continues regardless. There's no march discipline, no sign of a carefully planned withdrawal. This is not an administrative move. It's a defeated army, routing.

There are a lot of different vehicles and a number of units have been mixed together in the speeding mass. It's easy, nonetheless, to pick out the special black camouflage paint favoured by the Golden Brigade; the unit our forces are assigned to train. They're running as fast as anyone.

Baghdad's story insists that Islamic State insurgents attacked the city while a sandstorm blinded the defences. Ten huge car-bombs were then driven up to the defences and exploded. leaving the way open for a further assault. Sleeper units, supposedly waiting ready and unseen behind the lines, were then allegedly activated, causing regular Iraqi forces to flee the Malab district. 

The Golden Brigade held out for a while in the centre and another area on the route to the capital, until resupply became difficult. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the United States joint chiefs, has another story. He says the Iraqis "drove out" of the city. They didn't engage in a tactical withdraw; they fled.

Now there's no doubt. Barrack Obama's strategy in the Middle East is in ruins and, because of this, Tony Abbott's is also in shreds. The US president dismissed the fall of Ramadi is a "tactical setback". If he were any more laid-back he'd be flat on his arse. The worlds moving around him, and the shrunken United States he leads.


Last week Iraq's Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, flew to Moscow, returning with promises of Russian weapons and aid. The PM noted pointedly that he'd ignored "certain forces" (read Washington's) demand to cancel his trip. Iranian-backed Shia militias are now massing around Baghdad ready to take over the fight from regular Iraqi forces. Al-Abadi's now completely ignoring US threats to stop providing air support if these irregulars do join the battle. He's going to fight this his own way and there is nothing the West can do to stop him.

There was a slight chance that the IS insurgency could have been defeated quickly a year ago. Britain and France were concerned about Obama's method and they refused to provide anything other than air support. Abbott, bizarrely, chose to double down behind the US president. We sent troops who've done little other than sit, either in the desert or at bases around Baghdad International Airport. Meanwhile the fight goes on, just 40 kilometres away.

A counter-insurgency depends on relationships: the population must want the government and the government needs to be leading the country forward in a united way. Neither precondition is in place in Iraq. The lines in the sand are getting harder.

When Abbott labelled IS a "death cult" he eliminated the possibility of ever doing a deal with moderate Sunni's, but it left him with a problem. Neither he, nor anyone else, had devised a sound way of getting rid of the extremists.

Abbott's theological background hasn't served him well in the real world. He instinctively divides forces into black and white, and that's why he's finding himself out of his depth in a Middle East where there are multiple loyalties and conflicts. Should we really be surprised that the simplistic answers he advocated have failed to solve anything?

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 unlocked a genie. It upset the delicate balance between Sunni, Shia and Kurd. The so-called "Arab spring" spread further turmoil throughout the region as desires for change were ignited and then repressed. Abbott needs to understand that the world is not engaged in some kind of Manichean struggle between good and evil: the Middle East is a complicated situation where subtlety is needed to succeed. 

It's fine to label people, or insist on particular courses of action, but unless you've got the power to enforce your desires you're wasting everyone's time. There's a rule that suggests if you don't understand something you shouldn't get involved lest you make the problem worse. Our PM should consider taking this advice.

The fall of Ramadi demonstrates the bankruptcy of our current strategy. Even if Shia militias attack, IS will survive in Syria. The insurgency will be ongoing. If there was ever any hope of an intelligent solution it was lost when the Iraqi forces fled the city. Even if the city is recaptured, who will be prepared to stand up for civil society when nobody knows when IS will return?

 "Islamic State" is not a genuine caliphate. It is, however, a united and capable military force claiming to represent a nation. It demonstrates dynamism and capacity. Its troops may be misguided, but they're prepared to die for an ideal. Subtle, hidden yet concrete support for the insurgents is still flowing from Saudi Arabia and through Turkey.

It's triumphant in Syria and holding its own in Iraq, despite everything the US has done so far. Unfortunately there's no sign the West has any better plan than to close it's eyes and wish very hard that everything will turn out all right. Perhaps it's time for a new strategy.

 Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.