WASHINGTON — US troops training and advising Iraqi forces to combat the Islamic State are finding the Iraqi military leadership is plagued by cronyism and tribalism, according to the US Army's No. 2 general.
"While there has been some early signs, where leaders have been replaced," Allyn said Thursday, "that has to be an enduring commitment and it has to be representative of the country from which those leaders are selected, and that's the test that I think faces the country of Iraq and certainly an area of focus for [Central Command chief] Gen. [Llloyd] Austin, and Central Command."
US troops are encountering the problem, "at all levels, but it's particularly challenging at the battalion, brigade, division level," Allyn said, adding: "While the US is sustaining a training regimen, and gaining and sustaining the trust of soldiers, that's got to be something that's a critical focus for Iraq's leadership."
"There has been a consistent trend that it is not about performance-based selection," of Iraqi military leadership, Allyn said Thursday. "And there's cronyism involved, there's tribalism involved, there's a number of factors that ought not be influencing, you know, putting the best leader qualified to provide the leadership to a particular mission."
Allyn, who made the remarks to an Army Times editorial board at the Pentagon, joins the chorus of US officials who have said the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, hinges on Iraq's commitment to it. More important than the US training effort is "the commitment of the nation of Iraq to put the right leaders in place to lead those forces," he said.
In mid-June, President Obama authorized the deployment of up to 450 more US troops to help the Iraqis combat the Islamic State group, increasing US personnel in Iraq to 3,550. Though the US has been increasing its presence in Iraq incrementally, Allyn hinted at the size of the task at hand.
"It's a very complex mission, and I think sometimes we lose sight of the vote the enemy gets in a campaign like this," Allyn said. "It's been said many times that this is a decade-long campaign and not a day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month issue."
Asked if there are enough US soldiers dedicated to the mission in Iraq, Allyn demurred, and said, "We've certainly given them what they've asked for."
After the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to the Islamic State last month, Iraq's worst military defeat in a year, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Iraqi troops lacked the will to fight. The fall of Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad, was reminiscent of the complete collapse of federal forces in Mosul a year ago.
Earlier this month, Carter told the House Armed Services Committee that training efforts in Iraq so far have been "slowed" by a lack of Iraqi volunteers, sparking concerns about how effective those security forces can be in pushing back the advancing enemy.
Of the 24,000 Iraqi security forces the US had originally envisioned training at its four sites by this fall, it has only received enough recruits to be able to train about 7,000, in addition to 2,000 counterterrorism service personnel.
On the positive side, Carter said he had met with the Iraqi prime minister and other key officials, who "all fully understand the need to empower more localized, multisectarian Iraqi security forces and address persistent organization and leadership failures."
The US training effort has been focusing on increasing the participation of Sunni forces, which are under-represented in the Iraqi military, Carter told lawmakers. In part, the 450 additional forces are deployed to Iraq's Taqadum military base in Anbar to recruit Sunni fighters.
Not only is the quantity of troops an issue, but according to Allyn, the quality of leadership.
"While there have been some early signs, where leaders have been replaced, that has to be an enduring commitment, and that has to be representative of the country from which leaders are selected," Allyn said.
Leo Shane, Andrew Tilghman and Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.