Defense Secretary Ash Carter isn’t making many friends in Baghdad this week, not after going on CNN’s “State of the Union” this week and saying that Ramadi fell to ISIS because the Iraqi soldiers defending it “just showed no will to fight”:
Carter’s remarks are the strongest yet from any Obama administration official speaking on the record since the last week’s events when Ramadi fell. The U.S. has sped up the shipment of some arms to help boost Iraqi forces as ISIS has recently taken more territory, but the U.S. defense chief said Iraq’s military needs to step up.
“We can give them training, we can give them equipment — we obviously can’t give them the will to fight,” Carter said. “But if we give them training, we give them equipment, and give them support, and give them some time, I hope they will develop the will to fight, because only if they fight can ISIL remain defeated.”
Carter said it was “very concerning” the local forces showed little willingness to fight, as they are the ones who will be charged with fighting, winning and holding the territory against ISIS.
Joe Biden had to call Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi to smooth things over. According to Politico, Carter is being lauded at the Pentagon for “telling it like it is” and delivering an “important message,” but in dumping on the Iraqi soldiers in Ramadi he didn’t really tell anything like it is or was, and did it in a way that caused his important message to be buried. It’s incredibly unfair to blame the Iraqi soldiers for lacking the will to fight in this instance, and I say that even though there are estimates that say the troops outnumbered ISIS attackers by as much as ten to one (though that estimate also comes from Ash Carter’s Pentagon, so keep that in mind).
These soldiers didn’t cut and run away at the first sign of trouble; parts of Ramadi have been in ISIS’s hands since last January, and there’s been a full-scale ISIS effort to take the city since November. That means these troops have been holding out for months against an enemy that had nearly full control of the rest of Anbar Province from which it could draw supplies and reinforcements, meaning that ISIS might have been outnumbered at Ramadi but its fighters were by far better fed and better rested than their Iraqi Army opponents. Meanwhile, according to that Politico piece, the Iraqi forces in the city weren’t being resupplied regularly and weren’t being paid regularly, as Baghdad pursued other war aims and essentially left them hung out to dry. Despite that, those soldiers held the city until ISIS switched tactics and began to use force multipliers like suicide bombers to weaken their defenses and demoralize them. Would you or I have continued fighting under those circumstances? Would Ash Carter?
Overall, Carter’s pointed criticism is absolutely right: the Iraqi Army isn’t ready for the fight against ISIS. But that’s a failure of political leadership, not of the individual Iraqi soldier’s will to fight. It’s Baghdad that’s failed to create a sense of common national identity that might drive a soldier from the Shiʿa south to risk his life defending a city in Sunni Anbar. It’s Baghdad that has handed out general officer jobs as political patronage, filling them with con artists who are more interested in grifting the troops under their command than in equipping, training, and leading a capable fighting force. And lest we forget, it was Baghdad, along with American mismanagement of the post-war reconstruction period, that created the conditions under which ISIS came to exist in the first place. You can let Abadi slide a little on that last point since he didn’t take office until last year, but Iraq’s many other security problems are pretty squarely on him. And that’s no good, because American airpower alone can’t win this war for Iraq, and even a large-scale US reinvasion of Iraq would be pointless if Baghdad can’t govern the country once the fighting subsides.
At Vox, Zach Beauchamp lays out why Carter should probably have used different words to get his point across:
That means the US is attempting a very delicate balancing act in Iraq. On the one hand, it wants to push ISIS out of its Iraqi territory, and that requires letting the militias do some of the fighting. On the other hand, it wants to foreground ISF victories and minimize militia offensives as much as possible to ensure Abadi gets the political credit.
The best way to achieve that balance is by bolstering Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the official Iraqi security forces. Supporting these leaders helps show Iraqis that the United States, along with its powerful military, is committed to helping their government root out ISIS.
But when America’s top defense official publicly calls the ISF incompetent, Iraqis notice — and Iran and its militias start to seem like a more reliable bet for the anti-ISIS campaign.
I would argue that the problem isn’t really that Carter called the ISF incompetent — it clearly is, from most outward signs, and it’s OK for allies to talk tough to each other, particularly when one of those allies is wasting its blood and treasure on a government that doesn’t look like it could manage a Kinko’s, let alone an entire country with deep ethnic and religious divisions. But by phrasing his criticism as an attack on Iraqi soldiers, and kind of a bullshit attack at that, Carter has caused his “important message” about Iraq’s massive governance failures to be lost in the commotion.