U.S. Strategy in Iraq: More of the Same, and 'Hope'
Policy + Politics

U.S. Strategy in Iraq: More of the Same, and 'Hope'

© STRINGER Iraq / Reuters

There’s a saying about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, but judging from the Obama administration’s reaction to the most recent failure of the Iraqi Army to stand up to ISIS, the terror group that has taken over much of Iraq and Syria, it doesn’t seem to have penetrated the Pentagon.

Prior to its utter collapse in the face of ISIS last year, the United States had spent tens of billions of dollars directly and indirectly training, supplying, and supporting the Iraqi Army and related defense forces. After militants overran large swathes of the country last year, picking up expensive and advanced gear left behind by fleeing Iraqi troops, the U.S. commenced retraining and resupplying the Iraqis in the hope that a little more training and equipment would create a fighting force willing to stand against the Islamic extremists.

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Last week, the Iraqi Army showed the U.S. taxpayer exactly what that additional money and training had bought: nothing. Facing a looming attack by ISIS on the city of Ramadi, the Iraqi Army – reportedly with its most elite units leading the way – retreated from the city, many without offering any resistance at all.

Now the U.S. plan, according to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, appears to be to do it all over again.

“Our efforts now are dedicated to providing their ground forces with the equipment, the training, and to try to encourage their will to fight so that our campaign enabling them can be successful.”

Carter made the comments in an interview with CNN that aired Sunday. His apparent optimism about the possibility of someday transforming the Iraqi Army into a viable defense force, however, was undercut by his stark assessment of what happened in Ramadi. (He used the Obama administration’s preferred acronym for ISIS, which is ISIL.)

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“What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” he told reporter Barbara Starr. “They were not outnumbered. In fact they vastly outnumbered the opposing force. And yet they failed to fight. They withdrew from the site, and that says to me and I think to most of us that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves. Now, we can give them training. We can give them equipment. We obviously can’t give them the will to fight.”

He added, “I hope they will develop the will to fight, because only if they fight can ISIL remain defeated.”

Starr was kind enough not to make any comments about hope not being a strategy, but she did press Carter on whether the abject failure of the Iraqi Army lent new weight to calls from many in Congress to commit more U.S. troops to the fight against ISIS.

No, he replied. The Obama administration remains opposed to substantial increases in the number of U.S. troops on the ground there.

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“Air strikes are effective, but neither they nor really anything we do can substitute for the Iraqi forces will to fight,” he said. “They are the ones who have to beat ISIL and then keep them beaten. We can participate in the defeat of ISIL, but we can’t make Iraq run as a decent place for people to live. We can’t sustain the victory, only the Iraqis can do that.”

Carter at least admitted the possibility that the U.S. might, someday, need to change its strategy.

“If there comes a time when we have to change the kinds of support we’re giving to the Iraqi forces, we’ll make that recommendation,” he said. “But what happened in Ramadi was a failure of the Iraqi forces to fight.” 

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