Who's to blame for Islamic State advances in Iraq?

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says Iraqi forces 'showed no will to fight' in the face of Islamic State fighters. Critics say the Obama administration needs to do more on the ground there.

Stringer/REUTERS
Displaced Sunni women fleeing the violence in Ramadi, carry bags as they walk on the outskirts of Baghdad. Iraqi forces recaptured territory from advancing Islamic State militants near the recently-fallen city of Ramadi on Sunday, while in Syria the government said the Islamists had killed hundreds of people since capturing the town of Palmyra.

Things are not going well in the fight against the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Iraq. Whose fault that is depends on who’s reading the evidence on the ground – most recently the takeover of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.

Differences of opinion about such losses were on full display Sunday.

Speaking for the Obama administration, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter put the blame on Iraqi security forces.

Although Iraqi soldiers "vastly outnumbered" their opposition in Ramadi, they quickly withdrew last week, leaving behind US-supplied military equipment without putting up much resistance, Sec. Carter said on CNN's "State of the Union” Sunday.

Over the past year defeated Iraq security forces have repeatedly left US-supplied military equipment on the battlefield, which the US has targeted in subsequent airstrikes against Islamic State forces. The Pentagon this past week estimated that when Iraqi troops abandoned Ramadi, they left behind a half-dozen tanks, a similar number of artillery pieces, a larger number of armored personnel carriers and about 100 wheeled vehicles like Humvees, the AP reports.

"What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight," Carter said. "They were not outnumbered; in fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force. That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight [ISIS] and defend themselves."

“Airstrikes are effective, but neither they nor really anything we do can substitute for the Iraqis’ will to fight. They are the ones that have to beat ISIS and keep them beat,” Carter said. “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 and in particular in this case the Sunni tribes to the west.”

Critics see a lack of will to fight in the Obama administration itself, which has limited US action in Iraq to airstrikes and a few thousand advisors operating behind the lines.

Sen. John McCain, (R) of Arizona, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, sees the need for thousands of US troops on the ground in Iraq, including spotters who can move into combat areas with Iraqi troops and better direct air strikes.

"We need to have a strategy," Sen. McCain said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday. "There is no strategy."

“George W. Bush at least had the guts to reverse and respond with the surge. I wish, I pray, Barack Obama would do the same thing,” said McCain, who has faulted Obama for drawing down US forces in Iraq too soon.
 
 Democrats in Congress are worried about the direction of Obama’s policy in Iraq as well.

"I wouldn't say that we're winning. I don't think we're losing either, but I think we're seeing an ebb and flow, and largely a stalemated situation in the war against ISIS,” Rep. Adam Schiff, (D) of California, and senior Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said on “Face the Nation.”

"I think we have to intensify efforts first to bring those Sunnis into the government and into the military,” Rep. Schiff said. “I think bringing in Shia militias is the wrong answer. That's going to just aggravate those sectarian tensions. I think sending in our own troops isn't the answer either. We can't fight this fight for the Iraqis."

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, (D) of Hawaii and an Iraq War veteran, told CNN that "clearly ISIS has gained momentum here." The weak state of Iraq's military means that for many Shiites, there is "no place else to turn to protect themselves and their families except ISIS,” she said.

"This is a terrorist problem that affects us, and we have to take a more forward-leaning posture," Michele Flournoy, who served as Defense Department under secretary of policy during Obama's first term, told CNN Sunday. "The truth is, ISIS is a threat not just in Iraq and Syria, it is a threat to us, particularly given the flow of foreign fighters.”

Meanwhile, some US Special Forces operators involved in advising Iraqi forces are frustrated over their limited role, according to a report in the Daily Beast.

“They blame the hands-off approach on an Obama administration unwilling to risk even small numbers of American lives in battle, burned by the fallout of the loss of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and intent on preserving the legacy of President Barack Obama’s troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan,” writes Kimberly Dozier, who covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and teaches at the US Army War College.

Such officers “believe both Mosul and Ramadi could have withstood the assault of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS, if a small number of US military advisers had been working with Iraqi forces at the front lines,” Ms. Dozier writes.

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