Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged that the U.S. effort to train Iraqi forces to battle Islamic State is behind schedule because too few Iraqis have signed up to fight the militants.
“We simply haven’t received enough recruits,” Carter told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. “Of the 24,000 Iraqi Security Forces we had originally envisioned training at our four sites by this fall, we’ve only received enough recruits to be able to train about 7,000, in addition to about 2,000 Counterterrorism Service personnel.”
Although President Barack Obama last week announced a decision to send an additional 450 U.S. forces to Iraq, 50 of them military trainers, Carter and Dempsey both continued to argue that the war is Iraq’s to win or lose.
“As I’ve told Iraqi leaders, while the United States is open to supporting Iraq more than we already are, we must see a greater commitment from all parts of the Iraqi government,” Carter said.
Army General Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated Wednesday that victory against the extremists requires a reinvigorated, multisectarian coalition of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish soldiers fighting on their nation’s behalf.
“This has to be them,” said Dempsey, when pressed by a lawmaker on whether the U.S. faces a quagmire or stalemate.
“If you’re asking, ‘Is the United States winning?’, that’s the wrong question,” Dempsey said in response to Representative John Kline, a Minnesota Republican.“We are on path to deliver that which we’ve committed to delivering,” which is the capability to confront Islamic State “inside of their sovereign territory.”
Up to Iraqis
“This is a far different approach than if we were to decide ourselves that it was our responsibility to defeat” Islamic State inside Iraq, Dempsey said. “It’s my military judgment that an enduring victory” over Islamic State can only be accomplished by Iraqi forces and regional allies “who have as much and actually more to gain or lose than we do.”
The U.S. has spent at least $25 billion to train and equip as many as 279,103 Iraqi government personnel, including 200,000 Iraqi Army members and 649,800 Ministry of Interior police and personnel before the last U.S. forces left the country in 2011.
Carter reinforced Dempsey’s view, saying the central element of the administration’s policy is strengthening local forces.
“We believe that is possible,” he said. “It’ll take some time, and the American role in that is to train, equip, enable and assist those forces once they are built.”
When pressed about whether he saw a need for an increased U.S. military ground presence beyond the current 3,500 trainers and support personnel, Dempsey said he saw a potential niche role in certain tactical situations. Some U.S. officials, for example, advocate sending tactical air controllers to help direct airstrikes.
He disagreed with increasing ground forces “to stiffen the spine of local forces.”
“If they’re spine is not stiffened by the threat of ISIL on their way of life, nothing we do is going to stiffen their spine,” Dempsey said, using one of the alternate names of Islamic State.
When Iraqi forces go on the offensive and there is a strategic target such as a major city or oil refinery, “and we want to ensure that they succeed”, Dempsey said he’d take the advise of commanders, if offered, to insert advisers on the front lines.
“But not just to stiffen their spine,” he said.