Ramadi (and the entire Anbar Province) was at the center of brutal conflicts during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and continued to be caught in the middle of the subsequent vacuum following the United States’ withdrawal. Its location along the Euphrates River and the tri-border area that includes Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria makes it of great strategic importance, and its conquest represented a major victory for ISIS when they took control of the city in mid-May of this year, Iraqi government forces retreating in disgrace. This gave ISIS a waypoint city/hub where recruits and supplies could slip in from Syria and then move to their de-facto Iraqi capital of Mosul, which ISIS captured in June of 2014.

Today, news reports from both sides of the political aisle are stating that U.S.-led Iraqi military forces have declared a major victory by reclaiming Ramadi. A colleague of mine at Ft. Meade (NSA/CSS) tells me that there may be an official Iraqi flag-raising ceremony on December 28 at the city’s central administration building. These appear to be positive steps and a credit to the SF trainers and Iraqi combatants. War is cyclical, and there is much work to be done.

A flag-raising ceremony over an admin building is not a blowout success. I strongly believe that as the sun rises in the morning, ISIS suicide bombers and IED booby traps could take much of the shine off of the celebration as pockets of ISIS resistance will not simply surrender. In a bit of irony, the few U.S. airstrikes where our pilots were permitted weapons release hit vital infrastructure—power, water, and other services. (Not blaming the pilots, just questioning target selection.)

Shown here April 23, 2008, is an aerial view of the Euphrates River in Ramadi, Iraq, taken from a U.S. Marine Corps UH-1N Huey Helicopter flown by Marines of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 169, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jeremy M. Giacomino/Released)
An aerial view of the Euphrates River in Ramadi, Iraq.

This complicates an important task in a victory: How do you encourage the citizens to return to their blown-out homes with little to no public infrastructure? A ghost town does not represent “success” or victory. Another significant concern (though not PC to discuss in certain circles) is that Ramadi is known as the center of the “Sunni Triangle.” ISIS is Sunni, 80 percent of all Muslims are Sunni. Syrians and Saudis close to the border area are also Sunni. The U.S.-trained Iraqi forces are primarily Shi’a (Shiite). Iran, who has partnered with Russia, is also Shi’a. With all these factors playing into the strategic picture, is retaking Ramadi a major success?

Victory in Ramadi will be measured by time. More importantly, did this tactical action display a proven template for future missions and successes? The Special Forces clearly did a superb job in the training and motivation of these newly disciplined Iraqi forces in Ramadi, yet can this be sustained when preparing for the next logical target—Mosul? Mosul must be the next objective on the actions list, but not at the expense of forfeiting Ramadi, which would halt momentum and destroy morale (casualty numbers from Ramadi are still not confirmed). Mosul is Iraqi’s second largest city and the conquest of the ISIS stronghold (since June 2014) would likely require coordination and direct actions with the Peshmerga. Whether the result in Ramadi is a measurable success or a template for future Iraqi operations, the next step will undoubtedly necessitate a greater commitment from the U.S.