The American Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, could not have been blunter in his assessment of the Iraqi Army. It would not, he said, be able to defeat the Islamic State until it developed a "will to fight". The comment, a reflection of the Obama Administration's deep frustration with events in Iraq, was chilling on any level. But none more so than in a country that has just committed more than 100 military training specialists to what appears an increasingly dangerous and forlorn exercise.

Mr Carter's criticism was occasioned by the Islamic State's capture of the northwestern city of Ramadi, despite its fighters being heavily outnumbered by Iraqi soldiers. This was a virtual rerun of the fall of Mosul, Iraq's second city, a year ago. There, also, Iraqi soldiers retreated in the face of an inferior force, leaving sophisticated American-supplied equipment to the victors. The outcome of both battles has led Western military experts to question the army's leadership and the willingness of Sunni soldiers to fight for a Shia-dominated Government that they believe wants to oppress them.

Despite the resulting lack of fighting spirit, there is no immediate threat to the New Zealanders who are helping to train the Iraqis at Camp Taji, near Baghdad. While the Islamic State forces are placing the regime of Bashar al-Assad under ever-increasing pressure in Syria, it is unlikely they have the strength to press deeply into Iraq's Shia heartland. Much of the one-third of Iraq they occupy is a swathe of open country. That, however, made the picking off of Ramadi all the more significant.

It pointed to the limits of an American-led strategy based around air strikes buying time while the Iraqi Army is equipped and trained. Breathing space has been gained, but the Iraqis show no greater stomach for the fight. The most meaningful resistance is still coming from Kurdish forces and Shia militias. There will be increasing pressure on President Barack Obama to order an increased number of air strikes and to employ American troops, initially at least, in special operations.


That, again, may buy time. But the White House is understandably reluctant to put boots on the ground given the absence of any easy or obvious solution and the many questions about the Iraqi Government and army. Since the American withdrawal, President Obama has insisted this is a conflict that must be fought and won by the Iraqis. At the moment, anything more than defending Shia strongholds appears increasingly problematic, despite the large number of military trainers seeking to improve the army's skills and harden its resolve.

New Zealand dispatched its troops to Iraq for the best of reasons. An entity as evil as the Islamic State cannot be left to flourish. In many ways, however, this was a token gesture, and, wisely, a two-year limit was placed on the deployment. That cannot be set in stone.

If the New Zealanders at Taji feel they are not making a difference to the capability and morale of the Iraqi troops and are in significant danger, there should be no hesitation over a withdrawal. Saving face would be no reason to stay.