WASHINGTON -- ISIS’ recent victory in seizing the key Iraqi city of Ramadi -- a defeat that even the State Department called a major setback in the U.S.-led fight against the group -- is forcing top Obama administration officials to wrestle with an uncomfortable reality: its main regional ally may not be up for the fight.
“The Iraqi forces showed no will to fight,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told CNN’s "State of the Union" on Sunday of Ramadi’s fall. “They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force and yet they failed to fight and withdrew from the site. 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.”
Despite the concern, though, Carter did not endorse recent proposals to arm other regional allies -- particularly the Kurdish peshmerga -- or to deploy U.S. ground troops in efforts to embolden the Iraqis' fighting capabilities.
“[U.S.] airstrikes are effective but neither they nor really anything we do can substitute for the Iraqis' will to fight. They are the ones that have to beat ISIL and keep them beat,” Carter said in CNN’s exclusive interview, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group. “We can participate in the defeat of ISIL but we can't make Iraq run as a decent place for people to live. We can’t sustain the victory; only the Iraqis can do that and in particular in this case the Sunni tribes to the west.”
Carter did hint, though, that the Defense Department may be forced to revisit their reliance on the Iraqi forces in the future.
“If there comes a time when we have to change the kinds of support we give, we will make that recommendation, but what happened in Ramadi was a failure of the Iraqi forces to fight and so our efforts now are devoted to providing their ground forces with the equipment, the training and encouraging their will to fight,” he said.
As far as recent calls from lawmakers to send U.S. ground troops to the region, Carter said the Defense Department did not endorse that recommendation.
Despite the setbacks, in an interview with The Atlantic this week, President Barack Obama said he didn't think the U.S. was losing its fight against ISIS, which is being waged primarily through airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.