Pentagon: why training Iraqis to take on Islamic State will take '3 years, minimum'

US general says needs include: assess and repair what the Iraqi troops actually have in their arsenal, rotate units out for training, and convince Sunni tribes to rejoin the fight.

Hadi Mizban/AP/File
Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi (c.) speaks to his soldiers after a military operation to regain control of the university of Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, on Dec. 8, 2014. The commander of US forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Army Lt. Gen. James Terry, in his first press briefing in that role, said on Thursday that the mission to recapture Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, isn’t going to happen for some time 'down the road.'

The US training of Iraqi security forces is proving to be a complicated job that is going to take “three years, minimum” to bear results, a top US general stressed this week. 

Training has been the lynch pin of the US mission on the ground in Iraq, and it was also a job that US troops have done before, during America’s 8-1/2 year war in Iraq – premised on the notion that “as Iraqi forces stand up, US forces can stand down.” 

So why is it going to be years before Iraqi security forces are going to be able to take on Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) fighters?

Part of the problem is the truly daunting job that these local security forces face against IS militants. In his first appearance before the Pentagon press corps Thursday as the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve – the name that the Pentagon has given to its operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – Lt. Gen. James Terry acknowledged that IS fighters still retain control of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and that a mission for Iraqi security forces to recapture it isn’t going to happen for some time “down the road.”

And IS forces still have sanctuary in western Iraq cities in Anbar province, including in the city of Ramadi, where US forces once engaged in brutal street-by-street urban warfare to retake the city.

To aid in this effort, Iraqi officials have also been lobbying hard for more heavy weaponry, but Lieutenant General Terry said that US forces – and Iraqi officials, too – first need to get a clearer picture of what the Iraqi troops actually have in their arsenal and then make sure it’s all in working order.

“A large part, I think, of their challenge there right now is repairing what they actually have on hand,” Terry said.

Even as some Iraqi forces are fighting IS, others are going to need to be rotated out for training, Terry said. “Iraqi security forces have been challenged with continual redistribution of forces out there, is, I guess, the best way to say it.

“So now how do you get into a place where you can generate some capability, pull some units back so that you can make them better, and then now start to put those against operations down the road in a more campaign-like fashion?” he asked.

There is also the matter of convincing the Sunni tribes to once again join the fight against IS, made up of many former Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters. The tribes withdrew their support for the government of Iraq when former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, shaped the Iraqi Army into a sectarian force. 

This will require rebuilding of trust, which will take longer than establishing trust with the Sunni tribes in the first place – and is a process that has only just begun, Terry said.

“I see a lot of opportunity out there,” Terry said, but he cautioned that he would “hesitate to call it an Awakening” at this point, referring to the Sunni Awakening during the Iraq War, when the Sunni population turned against Al Qaeda and began working with US troops. 

“Bringing some of these troops around,” however, “is going to be important not just to the fight, but to the long-term enduring stability” of the country," he added.

It is all a tall order, Terry repeatedly emphasized, one that will certainly take years.

“I hesitate to give you a timeline, because I’ll show up in six months and you’ll ask me why we haven’t gotten there,” he said. “But I still think we’re – in terms of building some of the capabilities that are required there – probably about three years down the road, minimum.”

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