Too Little, Too Late

Pentagon Insider on New Plan to Fight ISIS: ‘Of Course It’s Not Enough’

The U.S. military just unveiled a new effort to get Iraqis ready to battle ISIS. Even Defense Department officials think it’s insufficient.

01.06.15 10:55 AM ET

The U.S. military is finally starting to train Iraqi troops to fight ISIS in restive Anbar province. But the program is just six weeks long, the Pentagon admitted Monday. American military officials privately concede that’s not nearly long enough to create a force capable of fending off the so-called Islamic State.

“Of course it is not enough. This is a confidence builder,” a senior defense official told The Daily Beast.

Figuring how to train Iraqi forces has dogged the United States since the 2003 invasion. Where the U.S. once sought to train several divisions worth, the latest effort is for just 3,000 troops. Where the U.S. once depended on its own forces to determine who was military material, this time the Iraqis will decide. And when the Iraqis graduate from their brief instructional program, it’s unclear what kind of weapons to provide future Iraqi soldiers.

With just a few thousand American ground troops in Iraq, the training is a bare-bones approach to rebuilding and diversifying the Iraqi army after it collapsed last June in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in the face of an ISIS assault. Indeed, some of those troops who ran away from defending Mosul were already American-trained. They received months of instruction from U.S. forces during the Iraq War, when there were tens of thousands of Americans schooling their Iraqi counterparts.

But now there’s just a fraction of that number. There are roughly 2,140 U.S. troops in Iraq, according to Pentagon statistics, of whom only 1,300 are dedicated to training Iraqis. Both U.S. and Iraqi trainers will lead the training effort.

“The Iraqis will prioritize for themselves who they are going to train based on their needs. There has been an ongoing assessment the U.S. has been doing along with the Iraqi defense ministry to determine the state of their forces, how many men are available, how are they organized, etc.,” writes Maj. Neysa N. Williams, a spokeswoman for the Combined Joint Task Force for U.S. and coalition effort in Iraq and Syria, in an email.

After the six-week training, the forces will be deployed to confront the Islamic State, officials said.

The Iraqi forces, who have completed some basic training, are receiving U.S.-led instruction in the central Iraqi city of Taji and in the restive Anbar province, where U.S. forces are confronting “regular” indirect fire at al Assad airbase there, according to the Pentagon. Training in Taji began Dec. 20; a week later, 218 Iraqis began receiving training in Anbar. Pentagon officials could not say how many are being trained in Taji.

The training, at least as described by the U.S. military, is incredibly basic. “It’s actually three weeks with a one-week break, then three more weeks,” Williams said.

The focus at both sites is “learning move-shoot-communicate skills that will serve them as the counterattack force. Leadership is a big component of the curriculum,” she added. “Fridays there is ethics and law of war training and instruction.”

The U.S. campaign against ISIS leans on two pillars: conducting airstrikes, and beefing up local forces. It’s hard to see how a few hundred troops, schooled for a month and a half, will make a difference in a campaign that some say could require tens of thousands of forces. The U.S. only plans to train roughly 3,000 Iraqi troops in the first year.

Pentagon officials say that at some unspecified time after the training, the Iraqi forces will receive additional instruction based on what they discover they need from the frontlines. And there’s more to the effort than just teaching infantrymen how to fight. The United States also hopes to bolster the number of Sunnis fighting in the now Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army, which was purged of many of its Sunni commanders.

“Iraqi security forces have been challenged with continual redistribution of forces out there, is, I guess, the best way to say it,” Army Lt. Gen. James Terry, who is leading the mission against ISIS, told reporters at the Pentagon last month.

ISIS controls much of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, claiming it as part of its state. And it has sanctuary in much of Anbar province. In Syria, ISIS’s control extends along much of the northern part of the country, from the Iraqi border through its presumed capital of Raqqa to parts of Aleppo, the nation’s second largest city. The U.S. military has said the it will take a minimum of three years for Iraq to build a strong enough force to make real dent in ISIS’s grip on parts of Iraq.

“I see the conditions right now being set for a pretty stable environment, but I still think we’re—in terms of building some of the capabilities that are required there—probably about three years down the road, minimum,” Terry said.

Figuring out how to find and train local forces is a problem that has stumped the U.S. effort in both Iraq and Syria, where officials have promised to train as many as 15,000 rebels. But the start date has been moved back repeatedly. On Monday, U.S. and Turkish officials told Reuters they hope to finalize plans for training camps by the end of the month to begin training in Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia in March.