SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militias allied with the Iraqi government are moving against the self-declared Islamic State in Anbar province. Some of the fiercest fighting in the Iraq War occurred there, and many Americans died trying to win back the city of Ramadi from Sunni insurgents. So when Ramadi fell to ISIS fighters more than a week ago, it was a setback not just for Iraq but to the current U.S. strategy of trying to contain ISIS through airstrikes. Ayman Oghanna, a photojournalist, was in Ramadi and embedded with Iraqi Special Forces just 48 hours before the city fell. He joins us now from Beirut. Thanks very much for being with us.
AYMAN OGHANNA: Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: U.S. Secretary of Defense Carter said last weekend that Iraqi forces - I'll quote him - had "no will to fight." Was that your impression?
OGHANNA: No. That's totally false. The unit I was embedded with, the Golden Division, were Iraq's Special Forces. And they were the most capable, disciplined military organization in the history of the modern Iraqi state. And in many ways, they were failed, perhaps, more by America's strategy than their own will to fight.
SIMON: You saw Iraqi forces fighting with distinction but American strategy or policy failing them?
OGHANNA: Yes. It's a little bit more complicated. Let me explain it this way. When the so-called Islamic State had its offensive through Iraq through last year, the regular Iraqi army and police crumbled and melted away. In their place, the only effective fighting force and the fighting force that was closest to the United States was the Golden Division and ISOF, Iraqi Special Forces set up by the U.S. Special Forces.
But you have to understand that a Special Forces unit is meant to do certain things. They are guys you want to use for precision offensive operations like, you know, helicoptering into Syria and taking some guy out. But since the Iraqi army crumbled, they were basically forced to do the job of the entire military, and that included being spread very thinly over a huge area, holding defensive positions against ISIS. When I was on the ground with them, they complained about a lack of U.S. airstrikes. And when I was there, I did not see many airstrikes.
SIMON: Now, there've been numerous press accounts that suggested that Iraqi forces had, by some estimates, a 10 to 1 advantage over ISIS.
OGHANNA: The numbers, at this point, are irrelevant. The numbers that matter are the - who are the numbers that are going to stay there and fight ISIS. And from the beginning, you know, they might be however many thousand policemen and army, but they are not to be trusted. Every time that they've been faced with an ISIS offensive, they have fled. And the only people who remained behind were Iraq's Golden Divisions - the ISOF, their Special Forces - and their numbers are far smaller.
SIMON: So at the strategic level, advice you might proffer to U.S. forces would be to increase the number of airstrikes or what, exactly?
OGHANNA: It's all very well for there now to be a debate in the United States about what level of support we need to provide our partners on the ground fighting ISIS. But this was a conversation and a debate that should've happened a year ago. We haven't really done much, militarily, to support our partners. Iran has. And maybe, sure, we have a debate, and 12 months from now, we say, let's commit 10,000 U.S. Army Rangers and Special Forces on the ground to help our allies. But at that point, the Iraqis might be like, no, actually, like, the Iranians have taken care of everything for us.
SIMON: You're probably familiar enough with the U.S. policy debate to know that for a lot of Americans, priority number one is no American boots on the ground.
SIMON: Well, because a lot of Americans feel that enough Americans have died for Iraq already.
OGHANNA: Died for what? I think a lot of American servicemen and their families who lost lives and comrades in Iraq are feeling pretty disappointed that we're pulling out and almost letting them die in vain by not following through. I mean, make no mistake. We are at war with the so-called Islamic State, even if you don't think so. The Islamic State thinks that it's at war with us, and it wants to strike us everywhere it can inside America, inside Europe. And so we either fight them in Syria or Iraq, or we fight them somewhere else.
SIMON: Ayman Oghanna, photojournalist - he was embedded with Iraqi Special Forces in Ramadi before the city fell to ISIS. Thanks so much for being with us.
OGHANNA: Thank you.