Washington (CNN)The White House largely stood by Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Tuesday after his comments to CNN that Iraqis "lacked the will" to fight ISIS in Ramadi.
White House: Iraqi 'lack of will' a longstanding problem
White House press secretary Josh Earnest, in the first public administration comments since Carter's interview, said a lack of will within the Iraqi security forces "is certainly a problem we've seen in the past."
"That's what allowed ISIL to make such significant gains last summer," Earnest said. "So what the United States and our coalition has been focused on is making sure that we can enhance the capacity of the Iraqi security forces."
Carter told CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr over the weekend that Iraqi military forces, despite outnumbering ISIS in Ramadi, "failed to fight" and withdrew from the Anbar capital.
"That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves," Carter said.
The comment incited surprise from Iraq's prime minister Haider al-Abadi, who told the BBC that Carter was misinformed. In a phone call to Abadi on Monday, Vice President Joe Biden praised the Iraqi military's courage.
But on Tuesday, the White House carefully backed Carter's assertion. Earnest said "a breakdown in some military command and planning" led to Iraqi forces abandoning Ramadi. Officials have told CNN that Iraqi forces were suffering from low morale after payments were delayed and they were prevented from seeing their families.
Ramped-up U.S. training and equipment -- combined with increased participation from Sunni tribes -- could help turn the tide, Earnest said.
"Building up the capacity of a willing and capable local fighting force is going to take time. And that is part of the strategy," he said. "The strategy is predicated on having a capable local force that's going to take the fight to ISIL in their own country."