Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told lawmakers Tuesday that the train-and-equip mission in both Iraq and Syria is lagging behind as local officials struggle to recruit troops to fight the Islamic State.
As of June 30, Mr. Carter said U.S. trainers in Iraq have only received enough recruits to train 8,800 Iraqi soldiers and peshmerga forces, in addition to 2,000 counterterrorism-service personnel. An additional 4,000 soldiers, including 600 counterterrorism forces, are currently in training.
The 3,550 U.S. troops in the region at six different locations have run out of fighters to train because of the lack of recruits, he said.
“I’ve told Iraqi leaders that while the United States is open to supporting Iraq more than we already are, we must see a greater commitment from all parts of the Iraqi government,” Mr. Carter told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“This number is much smaller than we hoped for at this point, partly because of the vetting standards,” Mr. Carter said.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the number of fighters trained in Syria is “not impressive” and that he doubted the U.S. would be able to hit goals for number of Syrians trained by the end of the year.
Mr. McCain also suggested that Syrians may be unwilling to step up to fight because the U.S. has not made a commitment to protect American-trained forces from attacks by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Syrian volunteers must show a commitment to fight the Islamic State, pass a counterintelligence screening and meet other standards required by U.S. law, he said. These standards, which Mr. Carter said he supports, ensure trainers aren’t threatened by so-called green-on-blue attacks — which were a problem in Afghanistan for years — from the Syrians they train.
The secretary also said the vetting of Syrians will move quicker as vetters and trainers get more experience going through the process.
“It’s going to take some time obviously to get the numbers up to where they’ll have an effect,” he said.
As programs struggle to hit the goal number of trainees across much of Iraq and Syria, hundreds of Sunni fighters are being trained to fight against the Islamic State by U.S. advisers who recently deployed to Al Taqaddum, Mr. Carter said.
President Obama announced last month that 450 additional troops would deploy to Al Taqaddum, an old air base near Fallujah that the U.S. used during the Iraq insurgency. The troops are providing advice and assistance to Iraqis trying to retake Ramadi and other key areas of Anbar province, as well as facilitating cooperation between Sunnis and Shiites and preparing Iraqis to train other members of their tribes.
Mr. Carter said 350 of the authorized 450 additional troops have already deployed. With the help of those troops, the Iraqi government has armed 800 Sunni fighters and is training 500 additional fighters at Al Taqaddum. Another 500 fighters have already been identified to receive training after the current group, he said.
“We are pleased with our early efforts. We will continue to work to ensure that these Sunni fighters, which are critical to the success of our campaign, have the training and equipment needed to effectively fight” the Islamic State, Mr. Carter told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed that the fight against the Islamic State is a long-term effort that the U.S. has only been involved in for eight months.
He predicted that it would take three years to restore peace in Iraq and a generation to totally eliminate the Islamic State and get rid of the extremist mindset in a region where many struggle to get by.
“That allure will only be stripped away when someone actually takes care of them and governs them,” he said.
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