President Obama acknowledged Monday that the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants lacked a “complete strategy” for training and equipping Iraqi forces at the forefront of the battle, sparking concern about the viability of a nearly yearlong campaign that has foundered in recent weeks.
The U.S. program to rebuild the Iraqi army is struggling so badly that one air base used to train troops has zero trainees right now, according to the Pentagon. Obama sought again to pin the blame for recent Islamic State gains on the Iraqis, as his administration has done in recent weeks.
“We don’t yet have a complete strategy because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis, as well about how recruitment takes place, how that training takes place,” Obama said.
After Islamic State’s rapid rise last year in Iraq and Syria, the White House developed a plan to rebuild the Iraqi army by sending thousands of military personnel from a U.S.-led coalition to train poorly organized brigades for six weeks at a time. Instead, a lack of Iraqi forces has left scores of military trainers from the U.S., Denmark, and Australia with little to do except wait for a new class to arrive at the base in the western province of Anbar, said one U.S. military official, who requested anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
“We have guys that are just waiting to get to work right now,” the official said. “The Iraqi government has a lot that they need to improve on, specifically the management and recruitment side.”
The failure to produce more reliable Iraqi troops restricts the U.S. ability to gather intelligence and to target Islamic State in airstrikes. By contrast, the militant group continues to lure recruits of its own, as well as raise money and maintain strongholds in the face of the U.S.-led bombing effort.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting of world leaders here in rural Germany, Obama said that he had privately discussed a ramped-up training strategy with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi but that they did not come to an agreement.
Last month’s fall of Ramadi, the capital of sprawling Anbar province, was a reminder of the larger disintegration of the military last June when Islamic State forces seized the northern city of Mosul and other parts of Iraq that they still hold. It also put a new urgency on the need for more Iraqi forces on the front lines.
The Pentagon determined last year that only about half of the Iraqi army's 50 brigades were able to fight Islamic State, despite U.S. government spending of $25 billion to train, arm and equip the country’s security forces from 2003 to 2011. The rest, ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 troops apiece, were deemed to have collapsed in combat with the militants or been tainted by sectarianism and corruption.
The U.S. has four bases across Iraq — Camp Taji, Besmaya, Irbil and Al Asad — where trainees are taught about tactical organization, logistics and intelligence to boost their ability to counter Islamic State.
At a separate special operations site, elite Iraqi forces are given a more rigorous program that the Pentagon does not publicly acknowledge.
So far, 8,920 Iraqis have completed training, with 2,601 more going through the program, the Pentagon said Monday. But the lack of Iraqi troops at Al Asad, a vast base about the size of Boulder, Colo., is disheartening, the military official said.
“Part of the problem is that Iraqi forces are always in a fight,” the official said. “When they try to move, they’re getting shot at.”
Another cause of the delay is the vetting of each soldier in accordance with a U.S. law that prohibits the military from aiding foreign troops implicated in “gross human rights violations” such as rape, murder or torture.
“We have tens of thousands ready to start training, but the real problem is the stringent criteria U.S. applies on the would-be trainees,” said Mowaffak Rubaie, Iraq's former national security advisor and now a member of parliament.
In the meantime, Islamic State has grabbed new ground in Iraq despite 2,729 coalition airstrikes against the militants in the country and an additional 1,718 airstrikes in Syria.
Obama’s remarks came amid a debate over who is to blame for those advances. Abadi has called the extremists’ seizure of territory a “failure on the part of the world,” and U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has said Iraqi forces lack a “will to fight.”
Obama did not go as far as his Defense secretary but acknowledged that finding recruits willing to fight remains a problem. He said some of the allied nations in the mission are unsure that additional resources, such as AT4 antitank missiles the U.S. has delivered to Iraqi forces, will yield results.
“All the countries in the international coalition are prepared to do more to train Iraq security forces if they feel that additional work is being taken advantage of,” Obama said. “And one of the things we're still seeing in Iraq is places where we have more training capacity than we have recruits.”
Republican critics immediately seized on Obama’s remarks, noting his broader admission at the end of last summer that the U.S. was still forming its strategy months after Islamic State’s seizure of Mosul.
“Nearly a year after first saying he didn’t have a strategy to combat ISIS, President Obama again today said there is still not a complete strategy to take on the terrorist group,” said Michael Short of the Republican National Committee, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Obama advisors who defended his characterization of the work in progress last year reiterated their position Monday. A lot still depends on the Iraqis, one senior official said.
“We've made some progress,” Obama said, “but not enough.”
Parsons reported from Kruen and Hennigan from Washington.
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