In the wake of the fall of Ramadi, President Obama has been under increased criticism for the perceived failure of American military efforts against ISIS. Speaking earlier this week, he may not have helped himself. Politico reports:
Back in September, Obama created a political problem for himself by saying “we don’t have a strategy yet” to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
On Monday, speaking at the end of a G-7 summit in Germany that included a meeting with new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, he rearranged the words and added an adjective, but said the same thing about training Iraqi troops to fight ISIL: “We don’t yet have a complete strategy,” Obama said. […]
A major part of the problem, Obama was trying to explain, is that ISIL forces are “nimble and they’re aggressive and they’re opportunistic,” compared with Iraqi troops, who aren’t showing up in the numbers they need to and aren’t ready for the fight when they do.
That’s compounded, Obama said, by an international community that might want to step in, but not before the Iraqis get their own situation together.
But that may well never happen. Waiting for the Iraqi government to coordinate an effective, nonsectarian fighting force has so far been like waiting for Godot. And so the President risks looking like he’s either willfully kicking the can down the road, or unable to formulate a way around this problem.
Yesterday a report emerged claiming that one of the five United States training bases in Iraq has not been sent a new recruit by Baghdad in four to six weeks. The United States is currently training about 2,600 members of the Iraqi military, but a grand total of zero are currently being trained at the Al-Asad air base in western Iraq, the Sunni heartland of Iraq. An American defense official said that divisions in the government are very much real: “They still haven’t gotten over many of their sectarian divides, so that is creating some of the problems as well.”
In light of both this and President’s own pronouncements, the Obama administration’s announcement of plans to send 400 additional American military personnel as advisors to assist Iraqi troops in retaking the city of Ramadi is somewhat jarring. The plan also calls for the creation a new American military base in Anbar Province in Iraq. An American official described the the announcement as “an adjustment to try to get the right training to the right folks.” With 3,000 American troops, including trainers and advisors, already serving in Iraq, and sectarian divisions causing a coalition training base already built in Anbar to remain empty for weeks, it remains to be seen if more of the same can make a difference. It looks like doubling down on an incomplete strategy that has not yet produced success.
And as to the President’s claim that delays and missteps are the result of just taking the time to get the right plan together, lower officials aren’t buying it:
A military official also took issue with Obama’s claim that he was waiting for options from the Pentagon. “What the f— was that? We have given him lots of options, he just hasn’t acted on them,” the official told Fox News.
Ouch. It has not been a good week for the Administration on the PR front in Iraq; that much is clear. The question is, are these just PR gaffes—i.e. is the Administration aware of what a weak reed the Iraqi Armed forces are? After all, there are positive developments in the region—particularly the rise of the Kurds (with sounds of Saudi approval)—that an Administration looking to turn things around could take advantage of, even as it says the “right” things on Iraq. Or, on the other hand, does this represent a sincere doubling down on the ISF-centric strategy of the last few months?