Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Sunday that more U.S. airstrikes and trainers could not make up for the lack of a will to fight shown by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in the fall of Ramadi.
In a scathing critique of the performance of the ISF to date, Carter said, "The Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight" in fleeing Ramadi last weekend.
In an interview with CNN's Barbara Starr that aired Sunday, Carter said, "They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force and yet they failed to fight," abandoning their equipment, large stores of ammunition, more than a hundred U.S. Humvees and other vehicles, and several tanks -- reportedly including M1A1 Abrams tanks.
"They withdrew from the site, and that says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves," Carter said, using another acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Currently, the U.S. has about 3,000 trainers and advisers in Iraq. In the most recent tally, the U.S. Central Command said that U.S. and coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria had destroyed nearly 6,300 ISIS targets since the bombing campaign began last Aug. 8, including 77 tanks and 288 Humvees.
"Airstrikes are effective, but neither they or anything we do can substitute for the Iraqi forces' 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.
Carter's stinging assessment of the ISF's capabilities could have long-range implications for relations with Iraq, but the initial reaction from the Baghdad government was muted.
In response to Carter's remarks, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi's office told NBC News that the government has "started its own investigation to punish those who neglected their duty" in Ramadi.
Dr. Sa'ad Al-Hadithi, the media director for Al-Abadi, added that "we cannot consider one or two failures committed by our forces as a failure of all Iraqi troops."
Despite the ISIS gains, Carter said there were no immediate plans to increase the number of U.S. trainers or to have U.S. troops move to the front lines as forward air controllers (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers or JTACs) to guide airstrikes.
In addition to taking Ramadi, ISIS also overran the eastern Syrian town of Palmyra, site of oil facilities and ancient Roman ruins. In recent days, ISIS fighters also reportedly took another main Syria-Iraq border crossing and now control the two main highways between Iraq and Syria.
Much like the ISF in Ramadi and Mosul, the Syrian forces of President Bashar al-Assad were said to have fled Palmyra in the face of ISIS attacks.
Carter's dire analysis of the state of the ISF contrasted with the description of the fighting spirit of new ISF recruits given by U.S. trainers who returned to the U.S. last week from their training and advisory mission at the Taji airbase north of Baghdad.
"They want to fight," Army Col. John Reynolds III said of the recruits he trained. The 18- and 19-year-old Iraqis who reported for training told him, "We were embarrassed by Mosul," the northwestern city abandoned by the Iraqi Security Forces under ISIS attack last summer.
The Iraqis told him, "We want to get our honor back," said Reynolds, commander of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division based at Fort Riley, Kan., at a roundtable session with Pentagon reporters last Thursday. According to the Pentagon, the U.S. to date has trained about 7,000 Iraqi recruits in six-week training courses.
In contrast to Carter, President Obama last week called the fall of Ramadi a "tactical setback" in the overall campaign to degrade and defeat ISIS. "I don't think we're losing," Obama said in an interview with Atlantic magazine.
On other Sunday talk shows, Republican congressional leaders disputed Obama's contention. When asked if the U.S. was winning, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said, "I don't see evidence of that."
On ABC's "This Week" program, Thornberry said of ISIS that, "What is more, their ideology, their approach, their brand is growing faster than their territory" throughout the region.
Thornberry said there was "no evidence" that ISIS might now seek to acquire a nuclear weapon, as claimed in the latest issue of the ISIS propaganda magazine Dabik, but added, "Would they do it if they had the opportunity? Of course."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has called Obama's contention that the U.S. is not losing "mind-boggling," said on the CBS program "Face The Nation" that, "We need to have a strategy. There is no strategy. And anybody that says that there is, I'd like to hear what it is, because it certainly isn't apparent now."
McCain and others have called for sending at least 10,000 additional U.S. trainers and advisers to Iraq. McCain has also said that U.S. JTACs should move closer to the front lines with Iraqi troops.
In response to the ISIS takeover of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, the Pentagon announced last Thursday that 2,000 M136 AT4 shoulder-fired rocket launchers were being sent to Iraq to counter ISIS use of massive suicide truck bombs to break Iraqi defenses.
The State Department had earlier said that 1,000 AT4s were being sent to Iraq, but Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the shipment now would be of 2,000 AT4s.
Warren said the Pentagon had decided against sending more advanced anti-armor weapons such as the Javelin in favor of the AT4s, which he described as "much more simple, much more man-portable."
Warren said the AT4s would be effective against what the military calls VBIEDs, or Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices. ISIS reportedly used dump trucks and bulldozers packed with huge amounts of explosives to shatter Iraqi defenses in Ramadi.
There were initial reports that a sandstorm limited the ability of the U.S. to use airstrikes to halt the ISIS advance, but Warren said that "sandstorms did not impact the coalition ability to conduct airstrikes."
In subsequent interviews with the Washington Post, several members of the ISF who fled Ramadi said a key factor in the city's fall was the swift retreat of Iraq's "Golden Division," a U.S.-trained unit considered the best in the ISF.
"When the forces who were meant to reinforce us retreated, our morale was completely broken," Omam Shehan al-Alwani, a Sunni tribal fighter, told the Washington Post.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.