U.S. Saw Islamic State Coming, Let It Take Ramadi

From Bloomberg via Yahoo! Finance:
The U.S. watched Islamic State fighters, vehicles and heavy equipment gather on the outskirts of Ramadi before the group retook the city in mid-May. But the U.S. did not order airstrikes against the convoys before the battle started. It left the fighting to Iraqi troops, who ultimately abandoned their positions.

U.S. intelligence and military officials told me recently, on the condition of anonymity, that the U.S. had significant intelligence about the pending Islamic State offensive in Ramadi. For the U.S. military, it was an open secret even at the time.

The Islamic State had been contesting territory in and around Ramadi for more than a year and had spoken of the importance of recapturing the city. The U.S. intelligence community had good warning that the Islamic State intended a new and bolder offensive on Ramadi because it was able to identify the convoys of heavy artillery, vehicle bombs and reinforcements through overhead imagery and eavesdropping on chatter from local Islamic State commanders. It surprised no one, one U.S. intelligence official told me.

Other observers were willing to speak on the record about how many had seen the Islamic State's assault on Ramadi coming. "The operations on Ramadi have been ongoing for 16 months," said Derek Harvey, a former intelligence adviser to David Petraeus when he commanded the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. Harvey said many observers had seen the Islamic State's series of probing attacks and psychological operations aimed at the Iraqi army and local tribes: "Everyone knew that Ramadi for some reason was a major focus." He conceded that he did not know the exact timing of the Ramadi offensive beforehand and acknowledged that he was surprised at how effective the operations were.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, had also been warning in policy papers that the Islamic State had set its eyes on Ramadi. Kim Kagan, the think tank's president, told me her institute "assessed that ISIS would undertake tactical offensives in different areas of Iraq in April and May in order to disperse the Iraqi Security Forces and prevent them from consolidating their gains after the fall of Tikrit." She said that "ISIS began alternating attacks between Anbar and the Baiji oil refinery in mid-April," which prompted General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to say in Congressional testimony that the U.S. was prioritizing the defense of Baiji over Ramadi. Kagan said the Islamic State's attack on Ramadi was not a "strategic surprise."

A spokeswoman for U.S. Central Command declined to discuss any specific intelligence. But she did say the U.S.-led coalition provided both airstrikes and surveillance to the Iraqi Security Forces in support of the Ramadi defense. The U.S. has also flown airstrikes in the past against Islamic State forces in Ramadi...

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