The Obama administration took the occasion of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s visit to Washington this week to boast about the progress that has been made toward defeating the Islamic State. Certainly, there has been some: A quarter of the territory once held by the terrorists has been retaken; airstrikes have killed thousands of militants and destroyed much of their infrastructure; and Abadi has begun to repair his Shiite-dominated government’s relations with Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds.

A new Islamic State offensive near the key city of Ramadi, however, has underlined the continuing challenge — and revealed persistent flaws in U.S. strategy. Ramadi is the capital of Sunni-populated Anbar province, which Abadi said last week would be the next objective for Iraqi government forces. But Islamic State fighters managed to take three villages near the town, prompting the provincial deputy governor to warn that it was in danger of falling.

An Iraqi official told us that Ramadi is in trouble in part because of the continuing weakness of government forces, including Sunni tribal fighters who have not received promised weapons and munitions, and because of a lack of close coordination for U.S. airstrikes. To a large extent, these are political problems. Abadi has repeatedly complained that the United States has failed to supply desperately needed munitions and turned aside requests for heavier weapons. Obama also has refused to authorize the deployment of U.S. air controllers near the front lines.

There was little indication that Abadi’s visit cleared these bottlenecks. Though the Iraqis say U.S. deliveries of munitions and small arms recently increased, there was no announcement this week that the heavier weapons Iraq is seeking are forthcoming. Officials say they are being held back because of concerns that the weapons could fall into the hands of the Islamic State or the Iranian-backed militias that have fought alongside government forces. While that risk is real, without heavy weapons Iraqi government units will remain outgunned by the Islamic State.

In the long run, the jihadists in Iraq will be defeated. But how it happens matters greatly. The weaker the support from the United States, the more the Abadi government must rely on Iran and the Shiite militias it sponsors, groups that are notorious for their brutality and sectarian aims. Tehran’s forces were recently sidelined in the battle for the city of Tikrit when it proved impossible to capture the city without U.S. air support. But if they are drawn into the fight for Anbar, or for the northern city of Mosul, sectarian bloodletting will follow and Abadi’s attempts to rebuild a multisectarian Iraqi state will be doomed.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State is still expanding its influence in neighboring Syria. With no workable U.S. plan for defeating the terrorists there, Iraqi officials say it is doubtful that they can secure their territory even if every major Iraqi town is recaptured.

The administration’s claims of progress belie the lack of a coherent long-term strategy for Iraq and Syria. That would require a much larger commitment of U.S. military, economic and diplomatic resources — which the Obama administration remains unwilling to furnish.

Editorial by The Washington Post

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