Seven weeks after the fall of Mosul, the Obama administration is scrambling to shore up intelligence in Iraq and map out a strategy to counter the growing terrorist threat from the rise of militants.
Senior State and Defense Department officials tried to assuage lawmakers Wednesday that the administration is on top of the situation, coordinating with partners in the region to ensure Iraq does not become a hotbed for terrorists who threaten the U.S.
But lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed skepticism—and for some, downright frustration—that the administration has not had a better handle on the situation. Critics argued that the administration was too quick to pull out of Iraq early on, and that it failed to adequately respond to warnings over the past year that militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria were gaining traction and plotting to seize control of key regions in Iraq.
“Nearly six months ago “¦ the administration testified that ISIS “¦ planned to challenge the Iraqi government for control of western Iraq and Baghdad,” said committee Chairman Ed Royce. “ISIS has done precisely what the administration predicted it would: It has taken over most of western Iraq, it has turned its sights on Baghdad, and it may be preparing to launch attacks against the U.S.”
Administration officials said the U.S. strategy is to work with partners in the region to starve ISIS of resources, isolate and disrupt safe havens and training camps in Syria, and support Iraqis in taking control of their western border with Syria.
Brett McGurk, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, stressed that the U.S. is encouraging a “functioning federalism” in Iraq that “would empower local populations to secure their own areas with the full resources of the state in terms of benefits, salaries, and equipment.”
McGurk said the governmental reforms, under this scenario, would have Iraq’s national army focus on securing international borders to combat hardened terrorist networks.
But he argued the U.S. has an important role to play in facilitating such reforms.
“Cooperation will be essential,” he said, adding that Iraq cannot knock down ISIS on its own. “Restoring stability and degrading ISIS will require a smart integrated “¦ approach, led by a new Iraqi government with an appropriate level of U.S. support and assistance.”
The Defense Department’s Elissa Slotkin, the acting principle deputy under secretary for policy, said the U.S. policy in Iraq is to protect U.S. people and property; better understand how the U.S. might best train and support Iraqi Security Forces; and improve U.S. understanding of ISIL, primarily through ramping up intelligence gathering.
“There is no exclusively military solution to the threats posed by ISIL,” she said. “However, we do have a vital security interest in ensuring that Iraq, nor any other country, becomes a safe haven for terrorists who could threaten our homeland or U.S. interests and citizens abroad.”
Still, committee members appeared unconvinced and questioned the U.S. response on several fronts.
Royce, a California Republican, pressed for answers about why the U.S. has refused to grant Iraqi government requests for drone strikes against ISIS. Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York questioned why the U.S. is committed to protecting the state of Iraq, which he argued was arbitrarily set up by colonialists and could be split into three states to give the Kurds in particular their own land. And Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California wanted to know why the U.S. hasn’t pushed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down.
A poignant moment came after Democratic Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey demanded to know how the U.S. has managed to pour so many billions of dollars into training Iraqi security forces throughout both the Bush and Obama administrations and have so little to show for it.
The Defense Department’s Slotkin acknowledged that four Iraqi divisions in Mosul essentially refused to fight, but argued that such a broad brush cannot be used to describe Iraqi defenses overall, arguing that units in Western Iraq did fight back.
In Mosul, “rather than a lack of capability, I think what we believe is that they just lacked either the will or the direction to fight,” she said. “Either “¦ there was a snowballing effect, and they, out of fear, stripped off their uniforms and turned, or they waited for direction from Baghdad that did not come and therefore departed.”
Slotkin added that understanding this failure is critical for the U.S. to decide what plans to pursue now in Iraq.
But the answer appeared to provide little reassurance.
“We spent billions of dollars on a group of people who are not willing to fight,” Sires summarized, calling it “mind boggling” and a “mess.”
“Where did we go wrong?” he asked.
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