Some Iraqi forces want more training than they can receive due to the need to get them into battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a U.S. military commander said Thursday.
“We’ve gotten to the point now where there’s actually more units wanting to come to the training than there is time on the calendar,” said Army Col. Curtis Buzzard, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division.
“So there’s a prioritization going on, on units that are going to go back into a fight soon, to come to these sites,” said Buzzard, who just returned from a nine-month tour in Iraq.
He said that at first, U.S. officials were worried that Iraqis wouldn’t see the value in training and that they had “largely stopped training” after U.S. troops left in 2011.
“I can tell you, there was a huge appetite to get back and do this type of training,” he said.
Buzzard said the Iraqi division charged with retaking Ramadi — a key provincial capital ISIS seized earlier this year — was stood up from scratch a little over nine months ago, which is one of the reasons why it has been so slow to retake the provincial city.
“It's hard for a new army,” he said.
The administration’s strategy against ISIS in Iraq and Syria relies heavily on training local partners on the ground, supplanting the need for sending in large numbers of U.S. forces.
Also, Buzzard said, it is to make sure that any military gains in Iraq are sustainable.
The administration has authorized the deployment of about 3,500 U.S. troops to Iraq to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS.
They are not authorized to accompany forces into combat, which Army Maj. Mike Hamilton, an operations officer for one of the division’s battalions, said was a challenge when assisting the Iraqi forces.
“We can't accompany them on the battlefield. And that presents a challenge both to, you know, our own situational awareness of how they execute the operations and our ability to assist them in executing the operations,” he said.
“It’s very intellectually challenging to try to influence their operations while not ourselves participating, and they have more of a responsibility for leading those operations than in previous deployments in the past,” said Hamilton, who has deployed twice to Iraq.
But, he added, “It’s ultimately their fight to win or lose, and we offer the best advice and assistance we can in the manner that we do.”
Buzzard said another challenge was making sure all the Iraqi units are equipped by the central government in Baghdad and that there is a U.S. advise-and-assist team tasked to tracking and monitoring equipping of the Iraqi army forces.
“There's still efforts going to make sure that the Iraqi units are being properly equipped. There is some corruption, obviously, still. It's a frustration,” he said.
Another challenge is recruiting enough Sunnis into the Iraqi army, especially in order to hold Sunni areas of Iraq, Buzzard said.
“It's moving forward, may not necessarily at the pace we think it should, but there is progress, or we would like it to, but there is certainly progress. And … we all recognize they need to be part of the solution,” he said.