WASHINGTON — The effort to train Iraqi forces to fight Islamic State militants has been slowed by a lack of recruits and the U.S. will not meet its goal to train 24,000 by this fall, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday.
Carter told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. had initially envisioned training 24,000 Iraqi security forces at four sites by this fall. But he said the U.S. has received only enough recruits to be able to train about 7,000 — in addition to about 2,000 counterterrorism service personnel.
“Our training efforts in Iraq have thus far been slowed by a lack of trainees. We simply haven’t received enough recruits,” Carter said at a hearing about U.S. policy in the Middle East.
So far, the U.S. is advising local Iraqi forces and is not engaging in combat against IS militants who have seized territory throughout Iraq and Syria.
The White House announced last week that it was sending up to 450 more U.S. troops to a new base in Anbar province of western Iraq, mainly to advise the Iraqis on planning and execution of a counteroffensive to retain Ramadi, the provincial capital. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that more such U.S. hubs could be opened elsewhere in Iraq as the campaign advances.
Asked whether the 450 extra troops will make a difference in the fight against IS, Carter said the numbers are not as significant as the location, which is in the heart of Sunni territory.
The U.S. is pushing for a more inclusive government in Baghdad that is representative of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, Iraq’s three major ethnic groups.
“As I’ve told Iraqi leaders, while the United States is open to supporting Iraq more than we already are, we must see a greater commitment from all parts of the Iraqi government,” Carter said, adding that the Iraqi leaders understand the need to empower a multisectarian Iraqi force as well as addressing organizational and leadership failures.
Carter testified along with Dempsey, who is finishing a four-year stint as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dempsey has expressed the view that the U.S. needs to be patient and not give up on the Iraqi government’s ability to fight IS. Many Republicans in Congress, however, are leery and say the U.S. should not rely on the Iraqis.
“There is a sense that we are at a particularly perilous time and that U.S. policy and strategy are inadequate,” said committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
Rep. Adam Smith, the committee’s ranking Democrat, cautioned that U.S. military might alone will not defeat IS.
“We can drop 200,000 U.S. troops in the middle of this. It won’t solve the problem,” Smith said.
Carter’s testimony was interrupted by an anti-war protester who shouted “We need a political solution.”