WASHINGTON — The U.S. will fall way short of meeting its goal of training 24,000 Iraqi forces to fight Islamic State militants by this fall, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday on Capitol Hill where lawmakers are already skeptical of the Obama administration's strategy to address threats in the Mideast.
Carter told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. has received only enough recruits 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 nearly three-hour hearing.
Carter said the train-and-equip mission in Syria also lacks enough trainees to fill existing training sites, primarily because it's difficult to make sure the recruits are people who can be counted on and are not aligned with groups like IS.
"It turns out to be very hard to identify people who meet both of those criteria," Carter said.
Later in the day, the House rejected a resolution to force Congress to debate an Authorization for the Use of Military Force for U.S. military engagement against IS in Iraq and Syria.
The measure, which was defeated 288-139, would have directed that U.S. troops be withdrawn from the fight within 30 days of passage — or by the end of the year if Obama determines an immediate withdrawal is not safe — if Congress failed to approve a new authorization.
Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said the resolution was needed to "force Congress to do its job" and vote on an authorization. Opponents called the measure dangerous, saying it could lead the U.S. to "walk away" from the region, leaving it more unsettled.
There are no U.S. troops in Syria and about 3,500 in Iraq assisting the nation's security forces.
The Iraqi military, which was equipped and trained by the United States, has struggled to recover from its collapse a year ago when IS militants captured the country's second largest city, Mosul, and swept over much of northern and western Iraq. Iraqi commanders fled, pleas for more ammunition went unanswered, and in some cases soldiers stripped off their uniforms and ran.
The U.S. is again training Iraqi forces and conducting airstrikes in both 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 the Anbar province of western Iraq, mainly to advise the Iraqis on planning and execution of a counteroffensive to retake Ramadi, the provincial capital. More such U.S. hubs could be opened elsewhere in Iraq as the campaign advances.
Staunch critics in Congress have argued that the current strategy is weak and that it could be strengthened by deploying U.S. troops as spotters for airstrikes. The Pentagon thus far has avoided putting tactical air controllers in the field with Iraqi ground forces and remains opposed to putting U.S. boots on the ground.
"I would not recommend that we put U.S. forces in harm's way simply to stiffen the spine of local forces," Gen. Martin Dempsey told the committee. "If their spine is not stiffened by the threat of ISIL on their way of life, nothing we do is going to stiffen their spine," he said using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Dempsey, who is finishing a four-year stint as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that when the local forces are going against a strategic target, the Pentagon might see how U.S. forces could help ensure the local forces' chances of success — "but not just to stiffen their spine."
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.
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest defended the White House strategy in Iraq, saying 1,000 new Sunni fighters were inducted into the Iraqi popular mobilization force last week. "I understand that even just today, another ceremony was held where several hundred additional Sunni local fighters were inducted," he said.
After the hearing, Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the panel's chairman, that he's not sure that Carter or Dempsey persuaded the committee that the U.S. strategy would be successful in battling IS.
"So we're opening a new facility in a different part of Iraq to train and we hope they come flooding in and they will be trained and effective and then we'll see if we can support them. It just doesn't give you a lot of confidence that this thing is on the right track," Thornberry said.
Rep. Adam Smith, the committee's ranking Democrat questioned whether it's not time to admit that Iraq is too fractured to continue trying to work through the central government in combating IS.
He asked whether Baghdad should be told, "time's up," and the U.S. cannot afford to continue hoping a government of national unity can be established. "As I've said many times before, that cow has left the barn. Iraq is fractured. You can make a pretty powerful argument, in fact, that Iraq is no more," Smith said.
Rep. James Langevin, D-Rhode Island, also wondered about divisions between the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. "Are we trying to artificially hold together an Iraq that doesn't want to be held together?" he asked.
Carter said there are indications that there can be a decentralized but multi-sectarian one Iraq under Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who the U.S. believes is more willing to set up a representative government than his pro-Shia predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.
"I think we ought to give them a chance because that's the best outcome," Carter said. "Sectarianism is not a good outcome there. We've been to that movie."