Defense Secretary says Iraqi training mission is far behind

Defense Secretary says Iraqi training mission is far behind
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Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday that the U.S. plan to train and equip Iraqi forces to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has fallen far below expectations. 

Carter said the main problem has been a lack of Iraqi troops.

"Our training efforts in Iraq have thus far been slowed by a lack of trainees. We simply haven’t received enough recruits," Carter told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIS. 

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Carter said the U.S. had planned to have trained more than three times as many Iraqi trainees as it has at this point. 

"Of the 24,000 Iraqi security forces we had originally envisioned training at our four sites by this fall, we’ve only received enough recruits to be able to train about 7,000, in addition to about 2,000 counterterrorism service personnel," he said. 

"We must see a greater commitment from all parts of the Iraqi government," Carter added. 

Carter said the administration's recent decisions to establish a new base at Al Taqaddum in Anbar province and send an additional 450 troops to Iraq would help to "close that gap" and recruit more Sunni fighters.

"Sunni fighters is the essential ingredient," Carter said. 

Carter also said the U.S. program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels was going slowly. 

Defense officials announced last month that they had started training a first group of 90 rebels, but they have not released updated numbers since then. 

"Our train-and-equip mission in Syria has been challenging, but the requirement for a capable and motivated counter-ISIL ground force there also means we must persist in our efforts," Carter said, using an alternate name for ISIS. 

The lack of progress in the train-and-equip mission in both Iraq and Syria prompted skepticism from lawmakers over the U.S. strategy, which relies on training local forces to take on ISIS instead of sending U.S. forces into combat.  

"Hope is not a strategy," said committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). "I see little prospect in having a ground force that we train that can push back against ISIL in the near term."  

The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), questioned whether it was time to give up on Baghdad and supply arms to Sunnis and Kurdish peshmerga directly. 

"So when do we shift that strategy and start building the capabilities of other partners that will fight?" he asked. "Should we be shifting a lot of our focus to that and basically saying time's up?"

Carter said there are "positive signs" in Iraq's commitment to move faster on training and equipping those forces, though it was "reasonable" for lawmakers to ask about progress "in weeks." 

"We're already getting an inflow of Sunni fighters," he said. "The Iraqi government [hadn't] furnished us with paid recruits, now that is turning around."

 

-- Updated 1:30 p.m. ET