WASHINGTON — Thousands of miles away from the actual fighting in Iraq, the Pentagon briefing room was under siege Friday.
Like incoming rhetorical missiles, dozens of reporters’ questions rained down on Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.
Will Baghdad fall?
Are emergency evacuation plans in place for U.S. Embassy staff?
What if Iran intervenes?
Did the United States waste billions of dollars and thousands of lives trying to shore up an Iraqi army?
Is Iraq, like Libya and Syria before it, descending into civil war?
From the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the Benghazi assault in 2012, the Pentagon seemed haunted by the ghosts of past wars gone wrong. Normally unflappable and upbeat, Kirby made little effort to hide Pentagon commanders’ shock at the march of Islamist militants and the retreat of Iraqi security forces from Mosul, Tikrit and their environs north of Baghdad.
“I’m not going to be cute about it,” Kirby told reporters. “I mean, we’re certainly disappointed by the performance of some Iraqi force units with respect to the challenges that they have faced in the last few days.”
Pressed on the point, the admiral, who has a reputation for candor, struggled to find just the right words, seeming to waver between what he might have wanted to say and what his official role permitted him to say.
“I think it’s fair to say that, that we didn’t expect for them, for those units to not have stood up to the threat,” he said. “We didn’t, I don’t think, we certainly didn’t expect that level of performance.”
Accused at one point of dodging the tough questions, Kirby tried to inject some humor.
“I take any opportunity I can not to answer your questions,” he said.
Most Pentagon briefings feature several dozen questions on a range of topics. On Friday, Kirby fielded almost 50 queries, all but one on Iraq. Normally deft and quick on his feet, he was like a boxer staggered by a surprise hook as he defended an almost seven-year U.S. military effort that his commander in chief had opposed even before he became president.
A note of defiance in his voice, Kirby said Iraqi security forces were in good shape three years ago when the last U.S. combat brigades withdrew.
“When we left Iraq in 2011, we left the Iraqi security forces at a level of competencies, particularly on counterterrorism, that we believed was appropriate to the threats that they faced,” he said.
But what Kirby didn’t say was as important as what he said. Despite being asked more than once, he declined to say that he’s confident Baghdad won’t fall to the al-Qaida-inspired fighters who call themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Asked repeatedly about reports that Iran has sent hundreds of Revolutionary Guard troops to Iraq, Kirby didn’t call on the United States’ longtime enemy to stay out of the conflict. While insisting that it is up to Iraq, as a sovereign nation, to quell the uprising, Kirby failed to convey full faith in the ability of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the putative U.S. ally, to do so.
“I’ll let Prime Minister Maliki speak for his forces and their capability in and around Baghdad,” he said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and other top Pentagon leaders, Kirby said, were preparing military options for the president. Yet he acknowledged that the United States doesn’t have a clear picture of how many ISIL fighters are in Iraq, how much land they control or how many weapons they possess.
That discrepancy led to an edgy exchange with Barbara Starr, CNN’s longtime Pentagon correspondent, who has reported from the front lines of Iraq.
“How can you give the president realistic options if there’s so many holes in the intelligence?” Starr asked.
“I didn’t say there were holes in the intelligence, Barb,” Kirby replied.
The two sparred over whether Iranian troops have entered Iraq, with Kirby refusing to confirm or deny their involvement.
“If this department cannot confirm that there are … Iranian forces in Iraq, how can you credibly give the president viable options when you don’t have a full intelligence picture?” Starr asked.
“Intelligence is never perfect,” Kirby responded. “It’s not a perfect science. It never has been. It never will be.”
He gamely added: “I’m comfortable and confident, and so is the (defense) secretary, that the options that the military will present to the president will be robust enough for the commander in chief to make the decisions he needs to make.”
Outside the Pentagon, some defense analysts said the real problem in Iraq rests not with cowardly soldiers, but with a corrupt government in Baghdad.
“Maliki has corrupted and undermined the army, police and justice system in his consolidation of power and personal advantage,” Anthony Cordesman and Sam Khazai, Middle East experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote on the think tank’s website. “He cannot govern, and he represses and divides.”
A military man himself, Kirby, too, seemed to want to deflect at least some of the blame away from Iraqi soldiers. He appeared to make a similar point, but in the softer tones required by his position.
“Some of what we’ve seen from Iraqi security forces in some parts of the country speaks to deeper challenges inside the Iraqi government, to include political differences,” the admiral said.