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Amid calls from critics to switch strategies in Iraq’s war besieged regions, the Obama administration has recently sought to publicly highlight that nation’s role in high profile setbacks all the while assuring Iraqi leadership of American support.
Pentagon officials tell NBC News that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s declaration over the weekend that the Iraqis did not have the “will to fight,” was part of a “good cop/bad cop” scenario crafted by the National Security Council and intended to send a “strong message” to Baghdad to improve military efforts.
After Carter’s statement went public, Vice President Joe Biden called Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Sunday and stressed U.S. recognition of “the enormous sacrifice and bravery of Iraqi forces over the past eighteen months in Ramadi and elsewhere,” according to a readout of the call provided by the White House.
The approach, some foreign policy experts and members of Congress said, is aimed at deflecting from what they see as the Obama administration’s failed strategy in Iraq and runs the risk of complicating matters.
“Surely someone in that position knows what they’re doing, they know they’ve just thrown their dignity under the bus to deflect from their own failings,” Tim Marshall, a foreign policy analyst said adding that the Iraqi army has made serious missteps. “But, the fact is, if you throw all the blame onto them, you're trying to deflect the fact that your policy on Iraq is not working.”
On Tuesday, the White House insisted it has a strategy in Iraq and that strategy is working.
It is a message the State Department echoed.
“The United States has been very clear in our support for the government of Iraq,” State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters. “…we share the determination of the Iraqi authorities to defeat ISIL."
However, others, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the muddled messaging is a symptom of President Barack Obama’s failed strategy in Iraq. The former Republican presidential nominee has long criticized Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from the region.
“People say that the Iraqis can't fight for themselves. They did during the surge. It was over. And yet the president, in one of the worst decisions in history pulled all of the troops out,” McCain said recently. Former Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “hollowed out the military and we're faced with the situation we have today.”
After Carter’s stinging criticism of its troops' "will to fight", Iraq's military vowed Monday to recapture the city of Ramadi from ISIS "within days," an announcement which “pleased” the White House. Earlier this month, ISIS militants took control of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, a loss that was a strategic blow to Iraqi forces trying to push ISIS fighters out of key cities.
U.S. military officials told NBC News the Shia-led government in Baghdad “practically abandoned” the Iraqi military forces in the Sunni provisional capital Ramadi. According to one senior official, the Iraqi forces not only lacked the “will to fight, but in large measure the capability to fight.”
The fall of Ramadi was the result of a “breakdown in military support and discipline” of Iraqi forces due in large part to Baghdad’s “total neglect” of the Sunni provisional capital and military forces there, U.S. officials told NBC News.
With 7,000 military and police officers, Iraqi security forces vastly outnumbered the nearly 1,000 ISIS fighters.
But, after being stationed in Ramadi for a year or more without leave or reinforcements, morale among the Iraqi forces had hit rock bottom. Many had not been paid for as long as six months.
Baghdad also failed to adequately resupply Ramadi forces with weapons and ammunition. Armored vehicles sat broken down in disrepair due to lack of parts and the Iraqi military there was forced to buy bullets from the black market.
Military officials say the fall of Ramadi began when ISIS fighters stepped up their assault with as many as 30 IED attacks that killed as many as 150 Iraqi security forces.
The vast majority of the Iraqi forces stationed at Camp Wallad in the northwest section of Ramadi were then “spooked” when a couple hundred of Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism and special operations forces suddenly abandoned their posts in southeast Ramadi.
“The CT forces picked up and left without informing anyone” creating a panic among regular forces which then fled their posts even though they had not come under direct attack by ISIS fighters. “This was a classic breakdown of a military unit, the worst I’ve ever seen” according to one US official, “that allowed ISIS to takedown Ramadi without a fight.”
Despite the announcement from Baghdad, U.S. military officials say the counter-attack to retake Ramadi from ISIS fighters has not yet begun.
Foreign policy experts say it’s important for the administration to be consistent in its messaging on Iraq.
“If there was one greatest flaw in this recent turn of events it is with the vice president's call,” said David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and editor of Foreign Policy Group, a collection of foreign policy publications. “Because while back channel tough love is probably most effective, the Carter critique was correct and in issuing it he did put pressure on the Iraqis to step up. Now however, we just look like we are talking out of both sides of our mouths and that again, we are uncoordinated and reactive when it comes to Iraq policy.”
The White House sought on Tuesday to balance criticism of recent Iraqi force performance with context about their previous successes and currently strained fighting conditions. The administration stressed that while American and coalition partners are willing to stand with Iraq they “cannot solve this problem for the Iraqi people.”
“Abadi doesn't want the U.S. military trying to solve this problem for the Iraqi people,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. Abadi is “looking for support …that's what he's getting.”