The PJ Tatler

McCain Accidentally Speaks the Truth About Iraq Army's Anti-ISIS Campaign: 'They Can't Do It Themselves'

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, interrupted colleagues and had a testy exchange with Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, who has been nominated by President Obama as the next commandant of the Marine Corps.

But during the exchange between the committee chairman McCain and Neller, McCain accidentally let some truth slip out:

McCain also went after Neller on Iraq, interrupting Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was grilling Neller with a series of rapid-fire questions on Iraq, Syria, Iran and whether ISIS was targeting Americans in the U.S. “I’m not aware that they’ve specifically targeted American individuals,” Neller said.

“General, you’re not answering the senator’s questions,” said McCain, who went on to engage Neller on Iraq and the use of U.S. Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) on the front lines in Iraq to guide airstrikes.

McCain accused Neller of trying to give a “scholastic answer” on JTACs and said “you know full well as I do – forward controllers make the difference. This line about they’re the ones (the Iraqis) that have to do it for themselves – general, they can’t do it themselves. We know that. That’s why they’re losing.”

That frank assessment is in stark contrast to McCain’s past catastrophic policies in Libya and Syria. But he pressed Neller further:

McCain asked: “Maybe you can tell me what we’re doing that will win against ISIS. Can you tell me that?”

“Senator, what we’re doing, I believe, is providing advisor teams and support,” Neller began to say.

McCain cut him off: “And that’s succeeding?”

“It stemmed the tide against ISIS, but it is not removing them from Iraq,” Neller said.

“So you believe that ISIS is losing?”

“No sir, I do not.”

“Do you believe they’re winning?

“No, sir,” said Neller. “I don’t believe they’re winning either, I believe they’re at a stalemate.”

To his credit, McCain was able to get the nominee to contradict outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who said just last Saturday that the Iraqi offensive against the Islamic State was “gaining momentum.”

In fact, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made a surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday to check on the progress of the Iraqi Army’s offensive against the Islamic State in Ramadi in Anbar Province.

This is just two months after Secretary Carter said that the Iraqis lack “the will to fight”:

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter warned that Iraqi troops will not be able to defeat the Islamic State until they develop a “will to fight,” reflecting the deep level of concern and frustration inside some quarters of the Obama administration in the wake of the Iraqi military’s collapse in Ramadi last week.

His comments, in an interview that aired Sunday, came after fighters with the Islamic State, which had appeared to be retreating in parts of Iraq, swept through the western Iraqi city of Ramadi and were gaining ground in Syria.

President Obama has described the losses as a “tactical setback” and said that the administration’s overall strategy in Iraq and Syria would not change. Carter’s comments, though, suggested deeper problems with Iraqi forces.

While the Washington Post spun Carter’s trip to Iraq yesterday as a check on the preparations for the Ramadi offensive, in fact, the push has already begun. And it’s reportedly not going as expected:

A U.S.-backed military offensive against Islamic State fighters faltered in its first week as several hundred militants entrenched in the provincial capital of Ramadi withstood punishing airstrikes and held off a far-larger force of Iraqi ground troops, senior U.S. and coalition commanders said Saturday…

The push by pro-government forces to retake Ramadi, which fell to the militants in May, includes about 10,000 members of the Iraqi army, federal police and Shiite militias, and Sunni tribal fighters.

But they have struggled to gain ground against heavy resistance, including hundreds of booby traps and other defenses built by a small but capable force of 250 to 350 Islamic State fighters believed to be holed up in the city, about 60 miles west of Baghdad.

There is good cause for McCain’s skepticism about the Iraqis’ ability and determination to push back the Islamic State.

In November it was announced that the Iraqi government had discovered 50,000 “ghost soldiers” — the equivalent of four Iraqi ghost divisions that never existed but U.S. taxpayers had still spent billions arming and “training.”

Then in February, CENTCOM announced preparations for Iraqi and Kurdish troops to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in April or May. The city was seized by the Islamic State in June 2014.

But just days later, after Iraqi officials fumed at the release of the planned timetable, the Pentagon said that the briefing authorized by CENTCOM was a mistaken disclosure of “military secrets.”

And despite talk from senior Iraqi officials about retaking Mosul, there’s considerable skepticism of the Iraqi Army’s ability to mount an offensive targeting Mosul, as their forces are stretched thin elsewhere across the front. 

In March, a successful campaign to retake Tikrit was met with heavy Iraqi Army and Shiite militia casualties.

Even before the city was liberated, stories of abuses and war crimes by the U.S-backed forces were being reported. Even CIA Director John Brennan admitted that the “good guys” and “bad guys” amongst Iraqi forces were “tough to sort out.”

Further reports of looting and destruction targeting the Sunni population of the city continued after the city’s liberation. Some analysts concluded that despite the liberation of Tikrit, the victory was pyrrhic as the resulting violence by the U.S.-backed Iraqi Army and Shiite militias drove more Sunnis to the ranks of the Islamic State.

The current Ramadi counter-offensive was originally planned for May, but postponed until now, giving Islamic State fighters additional time to prepare. And it seems they used that time wisely.

So the current battle in Anbar will prove to be an indicator of just what the Iraqi Army can do:

This is why McCain’s frustration with Pentagon officials on how realistic their assessments on the anti-Islamic State campaign in Iraq is warranted. It’s not just that the Iraqis lack what Secretary Carter called the “will to fight,” but that the Pentagon seems content to play along with the Iraqis’ charade.

And a Senate veteran of the handling of the Iraq war by both the Bush and Obama administrations has given him the perspective to know that if the Iraqis are unable to deal with the metastasizing threat of the Islamic State that threatens to spill beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq, it will most likely be left to the U.S. military to get the job done at the cost of many more American lives.