As the Iraqi military fights grinding village-by-village battles in western Anbar province, gaining little more than hundreds of feet on good days, there is no doubt that the war in Iraq against the Islamic State is slowing down. The best that can be reasonably expected in 2015 is the stabilization of the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. No one even talks about liberating Iraq’s second-most populous city, Mosul, anymore. At this rate, the United States will still be in Iraq when U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office — an outcome no one, especially the president, wants.
The dominant explanations of this state of affairs focus on Obama’s reticence to commit the necessary level of resources to defeat the Islamic State more quickly, or the inability of Iraqis to make good use of international support in the war effort. It is in some ways comforting to believe that the problems of this war are caused by a reluctant president or inept allies. The truth, however, is even more disturbing: The U.S. military has not been the ally it could be, because of its lack of imagination and flexibility.