President Barack Obama will send as many as 450 more U.S. military personnel to train Iraqi forces combating Islamic State militants, as his administration adjusts its strategy to contain the extremist group.
The troops will advise and assist Iraqi soldiers, including local Sunni fighters, at a base in eastern Anbar province, a stronghold of Islamic extremists.
U.S. advisers “will not serve in a combat role,” the White House said in a statement Wednesday. The new deployment brings to about 3,550 the number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq.
The Obama administration is trying to bolster Iraqi forces after more than 10 months of U.S.-led airstrikes and a return of American personnel in modest numbers failed to stop Islamic State gains in the country. The group last month captured Ramadi, the seat of the Anbar provincial government.
Some U.S. military and intelligence officials said they were skeptical that a small increase in the number of U.S. trainers can turn the tide against Islamic State, especially if none of them are assigned to accompany Iraqi troops or Sunni militiamen into combat or help direct airstrikes.
Sending more Americans also won’t resolve political disputes plaguing the Iraqi government’s effort to rebuild its army after a series of defeats, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s strategy. Many Sunnis continue to distrust Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, as an ally of Iran, they said.
Adding more trainers was “a first step” but “more needs to be done if this strategy is to be more effective,” said Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense under Obama.
Flournoy, who is now chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said at a conference on Friday that “more aggressive steps” should include sending in spotters, U.S. forces that would accompany Iraqi troops in the field and direct airstrikes to make them more effective.
A “general hesitancy to get pulled back in Iraq has made the administration go slow,” she said.
Obama stressed the need to ramp up the training mission at a Group of Seven summit of world leaders in Germany this week. He said in a news conference on Monday that the U.S. and its allies are concerned there aren’t enough Iraqi recruits to train.
The Iraqi government has “committed” to provide recruits to replace 3,000 soldiers who left their positions in Anbar-based divisions since the Islamic State offensive, Brett McGurk, a State Department official involved in strategy against the group, said in a conference call with reporters.
The predominantly Sunni population in the province has resisted intervention by the Shiite-dominated central government.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy White House national security adviser, said the the U.S. needs “a capable partner on the ground” to combat Islamic State.
“We are hoping to get more of those Sunni tribes invested in the fight against ISIL to have a greater recruiting base for the fight against ISIL in Anbar province,” he said, using an alternative acronym for Islamic State.
The U.S. will also send additional military equipment to Iraqi security forces as well as to Kurdish peshmerga militia and tribal fighters serving under Iraqi government command, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in the White House statement. It provided no additional details on the equipment.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said last month Iraqi forces showed “no will to fight” when they lost control of Ramadi, even though they outnumbered Islamic State forces.
With the addition of the new base, U.S. advisers will be training Iraqi troops in five locations inside the country, Earnest said. The U.S. so far has trained more than 9,000 Iraqi troops, with another 3,000 currently in training.
The new trainers will be sent to Taqaddum, an old Iraqi Air Force base near the city of Habbaniyah, between Fallujah and Ramadi. The base was previously used by U.S. forces starting in 2003 and returned to the Iraqis toward the end of 2009.
The White House said that local Sunni forces will be among those trained.
“These new advisers will work to build capacity of Iraqi forces, including local tribal fighters, to improve their ability to plan, lead, and conduct operations against ISIL in eastern Anbar under the command of the Prime Minister,” Earnest said in the statement.
An alliance with Sunni tribal leaders, called the “Sunni Awakening” or “Anbar Awakening,” was a crucial component of efforts to regain control of the province during the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2008.
For more, read this from Bloomberg View: Obama Doubles Down Against Islamic State