Americans have to die on battlefield to destroy ISIS - US military strategist
Islamic State is a threat that puts the whole world in danger - and questions arise as to how peril of such a scale ever came to exist. Now, the US and its allies are trying to put an end to this entity, but are the airstrikes really effective? Is a ground war inevitable? And what it would cost to stop the blood flowing in the Middle East? We ask these questions to a prominent military strategist. Counterinsurgency expert Lieutenant-Colonel John Nagl is on Sophie&Co.
Sophie Shevardnadze:Counterinsurgency expert, Lieutenant-Colonel John Nagl, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, you believe, invading Iraq in 2003 was a mistake - and now we’re seeing U.S. troops back on the ground, aiding the Iraqi military in the fight against ISIS. Is it a mistake, or a necessary measure?
JN: No, sadly, this re-invasion of Iraq in 2015 is necessary. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 I think was not just a mistake, but perhaps a biggest mistake the U.S. has ever made in foreign policy. It’s a four trillion dollar mistake, it caused enormous damage in the region, to the people of Iraq and certainly to my army and very-very many of my friends. So, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a disaster, a fiasco, unnecessary and poorly conducted. We played the endgame very-very badly and that failure of American foreign policy in 2011 necessitates today America returning to Iraq in force.
SS: Now, President Obama asked Congress for official authorization to use military force against IS, and that would give them flexibility and allow combat operations in limited circumstances. Is President mulling something serious if he needs Congress approval?
JN: Certainly, the use of force is always very serious business, I would prefer him to ask Congress for even more authority rather than less. So, we’re currently operating in Syria, we’ve had American troops back on the ground there for 5 months in a combat role, we are operating under more than 10-year old authorization to invade Iraq in 2003, and I think the decision to go to Congress for approval and for support is long overdue. Unfortunately, I believe the request downplays the significance of the action that’s being contemplated, put unnecessary limitations on the use of American power in the region and makes success in the fight against ISIS more difficult and likely to take longer than it is necessarily the case.
SS:Now, let’s rewind a little bit - you personally helped end the Iraq campaign by reminding the U.S. army of counterinsurgency lessons learned in Vietnam. The U.S. army left in 2011, so why are we seeing this chaos today?
JN: So, many experts, myself included, strongly advised that the U.S. maintain a long-term security presence in Iraq after the, roughly, after the cessation of hostilities in 2010-11 timeframe, when the Sunni insurgency has largely been defeated, have been co opted and while there were still pockets of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, largely that threat has also been pushed out of Iraq and into Syria. Against the advice of pretty much every military expert in the country, the advice of the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his Secretary of DefenceLeon Panetta, the President made a different decision and he withdrew all American troops, unilaterally, unnecessarily and prematurely. The absence of American troops to stiffen resolve and improve the performance of the Iraqi army, as well as the absence of American political pressure to push PM Maliki to continue to accommodate and incorporate the Sunni tribes of Iraq, meant that when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria regained strength and attacked in 2014, the IRaqi army crumbled without American assistance and presented a real threat to the government of Iraq in Baghdad, that the U.S. spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives installing. So, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq was unforced error and unnecessary decision and a very very bad decision. Not as bad as the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, but still a gross error.
SS: Now, you believe the Middle East will remain at war for at least a generation - so does that mean the U.S. will have to stay in Iraq for decades?
JN: I absolutely think the U.S. will have to stay both in Iraq and in Afghanistan for decades to come. The U.S. has a long history of doing just that, of course. We continue to have American troops in Germany, Italy and Japan, some 75 years after the end of the WWII, we still have American troops in South Korea, we still have American troops in the former Yugoslavia, all decades after the cessation of hostilities there. So, if ground is important enough for America’s sons and daughters to bleed on that ground, to accomplish the foreign policy objectives of the U.S. - that ground is important enough to continue to station American troops there for generations to prevent the next war from breaking out. And I strongly believe that after expelling the Islamic State from Iraq, which I expect to happen in the next 6 months to 2 years, that America should maintain a long-term security presence of some 10-20 thousand U.S. troops in Iraq, to ensure that in my lifetime we don’t have to fight a fourth Iraq war. I fought in the first two, my friends are now fighting in the third Iraq war of my lifetime - that’s enough.
SS: So let’s talk a bit in detail about the prediction about ISIS being rooted out within 6 months to 2 years. IS is surrounded by civilians, living in captured towns - you can’t drop bombs and expect not to hurt anybody, right. Leading a war from the air means there will be inevitable collateral damage. Now, when an operation is planned, bombing is planned for instance - are the civilians taken into account? Would a village be bombed if it means killing an important terrorist leader, for instance?
JN: Many of those decisions will be made by the Iraqi government. I expect that as the Islamic State moves into the cities and the villages, hunkers down, that they will have to be cleared out street-by-street, house by house, that fighting should be done by Iraqi security forces, however they should be enabled and empowered by embedded U.S. advisors. That fight is going to be hard, it’s going to be long, we can make it easier and faster by surrounding the cities first, by cutting off the supply lines of the Islamic State, by continuing to control the air - I expect all those things to happen, but I expect the street-by-street, house-by-house fighting to be done by Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish soldiers with American advisors in close support.
SS: But let me just clarify something - do I understand correctly that you believe ISIS will only be rooted out with American boots on the ground? If yes, then how do you see this happening? Another Iraq occupation, invading Syria?
JN: No, there are currently American boots on the ground, there are 26 hundred American soldiers on the ground in Iraq. I can guarantee you that everyone of those soldiers is currently wearing boots. The idea that we don’t have boots on the ground is ludicrous, it’s a fallacy and the government and the President should be embarrassed for saying so; so let’s move past that. Now, let’s talk about the role those troops are currently performing. They are serving as advisors to Iraqi units, currently not in close combat with the enemy in most cases, but behind the wire, working in training camps. That is insufficient to expel the Islamic State from Iraq. We are going to have to put those American troops embedded inside Iraqi units, in close support of those Iraqi units, in order to enable and empower them to expel the Islamic State from that country in a reasonable period of time. That’s not an occupation, it will be Iraqi troops doing the fighting, it will be American troops in close support, calling in airstrikes, providing intelligence, providing a number of the enablers and the logistical support that America is so good at, and it will enable the Iraqis to do the fighting and the dying.. So I am talking about the total force of some 10-20 thousand American advisors - clearly, an insufficient number to occupy the country the size of Iraq, but sufficient to provide a steel spine that will provide support to an Iraqi military that collapsed under pressure last year and that has not been completely rebuilt, that cannot conduct this fight on its own.
SS: Kurdish fighters liberated the city of Kobani from IS - doesn’t that prove that airstrikes plus local ground troops can defeat IS in the end?
JN: Defeat of ISIS forces in Kobani took months, caused very heavy casualties and Kobani is quite frankly a small and fairly inconsequential town strategically. Mosul is the city of millions, right. The Kurds, good as they are, are not going to be able to clear Mosul without American advisors embedded inside their units. It would take years for them to do so. The President of the U.S. has correctly, just this week, stated that the Islamic State is a threat to the American people and to America’s interests around the globe. We don’t have years to wait before we defeat them in Iraq, we need to pump up the volume of a number of American advisors on the ground and change the role they are going to fill, from advisors behind the lines to embedded combat advisors: not Americans pulling triggers, but Americans talking on radios, providing intelligence to forward fighting Iraqi and Kurdish units. Some of those American advisors will get hurt, some of them will get killed - they are willing to take those risks in order to defeat these barbarians who present a threat to the American people, to their families back home.
SS:Let me ask you something: the Iraqi army, built and prepared by the U.S. military with tens of billions of dollars invested, like you’ve said - why did it crumble when faced with Islamic State?
JN: I mentioned earlier that the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, the premature withdrawal of American troops caused a number of problems inside Iraq. It immediately rendered the Iraqi units which have been designed to be enabled by American advisors for a generation - it immediately rendered those units less capable. It also meant that the U.S. had less political pressure to put on PM Maliki of Iraq. PM Maliki was far more concerned about a coup, led by Sunni leaders of his military, than he was about the attack by the Islamic State then nascent in Syria. So, PM Maliki, in the absence of American pressure and pressure forcing him towards sectarian inclusion, fired a number of those Sunni commanders of his army units and replaced them with his Shia cronies, people who are not capable military commanders, who did not have the trust and the support of the troops, who didn’t know how to use their troops; and those Shia cronies of Maliki fled when the ISIS threat approached. So, perfectly good Iraqi units had their commanders flee, desert under fire, and the units, in many cases, fought on without ammunition, without leadership, without coordination, until they finally crumbled - so, these were entirely predictable results, based on American withdrawal of advisors from Iraq at the end of 2011, a course of action that joint chiefs, the Secretary of Defence, the Secretary of State - all advised the President not to take.
SS:Could Iraq see another Sunni awakening like the one, for example, when Sunni tribesmen, who used to fight against U.S. troops realigned themselves and help counter other insurgents? Why isn’t this happening now?
JN: The Anbar awakening of 2007 was the turning point of the Iraq war. It was enabled by the new counterinsurgency strategy thatDavidPetraeus implemented when he took command in Iraq in 2007. There’ve been attempts at uprisings, awakenings, earlier, including as early as 2004 when I was working in Al Anbar, none of those have been supported by the American government at the high level. The problem is that the brave Sunnis who do not support the radical islamist regime, ideas, motivations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - have largely been killed. There’ve been numerous awakenings, numerous attempts by those Sunnis, and in too many cases they have not been supported, either by the U.S. or by the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. So, I think it’s unlikely that we’re going to see another Anbar awakening, with the Islamic state occupying as much of Anbar as it does, and at least, immediately, right now, being so powerful. The Sunni tribes are waiting to see who’s going to be the strongest tribe at the end of the day. It should their government with American advisors, enabling and empowering the Iraqi government forces. However, the U.S. has sounded an uncertain trumpet to date, has not commited sufficient resources to make the Sunni people of Al Anbar confident that the U.S. and its government are going to stay with them this time. They’re not going to risk their necks again.
SS:But here’s another thing about ISIS: it is fighting for hearts and minds, and judging by reports from IS occupied towns, they’re not doing such a bad job - I mean, they’re trying to establish social programs, hospitals; bringing their own version of stability and order, so to say. So, will Americans win Iraqi people’s trust after all that’s happened in the last decade?
JN: Not under current plans, I am afraid. So, for the U.S. to convince the Sunni tribes that it is going to be the strongest tribe, that it is going to support their government for the long term, for decades if that be necessary, to build a better peace in Anbar province, the President of the U.S. is going to have to make a commitment to far more than the three years the President Obama requested in the authorization for the use of military force, that he requested from Congress just this week. So, the Iraqi people, the Sunni tribes of Al Anbar have no reason to trust the U.S. We promised them that we would be with them for the long haul in 2007, we left in 2011, a whole lot of them got killed or arrested afterwards. They’re going to need to see a much firmer commitment from the U.S. than President Obama has been willing to give so far.
SS: And with ISIS being the biggest threat to the U.S. national security like the President said, Syria’s President Bashar Assad could prove a valuable ally against the IS. You could think whatever you want about him, but he is a secular leader. Is Washington even able politically to stop confronting and start talking to him? Isn’t stopping terror more important at this point?
JN: The Administration is in a very difficult position. It drew a red line against President Assad, daring him to use chemical weapons against his own people - he did, and the U.S. then erased that red line. So this Administration, I think, is unable to deal politically with President Assad. That said, it is currently supporting Assad’s fight against the Islamic State insight Syria with targeted airstrikes against the islamists, not targeting Assad’s forces, not targeting Syrian government forces. So, I do not believe that this Administration will be able to swallow hard enough to work politically with Assad. It is cooperating with him on the ground militarily. I believe that the next Administration, the next U.S. President will accept the fact that Assad is the lesser of the evils, distasteful as he is, he is not as bad as the Islamic State. He does not present the same threat to American interests and to American citizens as does the Islamic State - and so I predict political accommodation with Assad by the next President of the U.S.
SS: Could we see the U.S. invade Syria if president Assad doesn’t want to speak to Washington?
JN: I see no willingness to take on that particular task anywhere on the American political spectrum - and this is why I believe that ultimately the next Administration will reach political accommodation with President Assad. The alternative to Assad is ISIS, which is completely unacceptable. The third option is fighting against both ISIS and Assad - that would require a full occupation of Syria by perhaps 150,000 AMerican troops for a generation. Nobody has the appetite for that, I don’t recommend that. I think Assad is a better choice than a long-term American occupation of Syria.
SS:Was there any way to prevent the chaos in Iraq and in Syria we’re seeing right now? Do you personally see a way?
JN: We shouldn’t have invaded Iraq in March 2003, I recommended against that course of action at that point. The one other mistake we made, a critical mistake we made, was failing to arm, train and equip the moderate Syrian rebels in the summer of 2012, a course of action recommended by Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defence Panetta, and Director of Central Intelligence Petraeus. The President, again, failed to choose that option, and a lack of a free Syrian army in Syria gave free reign to ISIS to rearm, re-equip and take possession of a signification portion of Syria.
SS:But even if you had that option on the table, even if you went along with it, where’s the guarantee you were going to arm the right people? I mean, some of those people, armed by the U.S. and its allies, have radicalised and joined Islamic State later.
JN: All true. THere are no guarantees in foreign policy, and sometimes you have to choose the least bad option. Petraeus, and Clinton and Panetta looked at all of the options and said “This is the least bad one”, made a unanimous recommendation to the President of the U.S., which he chose not to take. We are now following the course of action that they’ve recommended back in 2012. Unfortunately, the people that they wanted to arm, train and equip are now all dead or scattered. They have been defeated by the Islamic State and we’re trying again with the third team. It is much less likely to succeed now against the much stronger ISIS that it was to have succeeded in 2012, but it’s the course of action we’re taking now. That window closed, we should have gone through it, that option, I think, is gone, that ship has sailed.
SS: I spoke to a journalist who embedded himself with the rebel unit in Syria. Now, he saw the war with his own eyes, and he told me most of the fighters there wage war to establish Islamic Law in Syria. Is this what U.S. should have supported more? Is that what the U.S. needs in Syria at this point?
JN: The U.S. had the option to arm train and equip relatively moderate Syrian rebels who wanted to establish some form of Islam-icbut not Islam-iststate. So, not a radical form of Sharia law, some degree of rights for women and certainly, not proponents of the expansion of Islam-ist, radical Islamist ideology in political control.
SS: Insurgent attacks are on the rise in Afghanistan. Islamic State has announced its moving into the country. What will stop Afghanistan from turning into the next Iraq or even Syria.
JN: The long-term presence of American advisors in Afghanistan is as necessary in Afghanistan as it is in Iraq. The Obama Administration currently plans to withdraw American advisors from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. If follows through with that plan, the Taliban will regain control of large portions of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The Islamic State, I believe, will take control and we will have yield even more territory to radical Islamists, given even more room for maneuver and opportunities to plan, prepare and conduct attacks against the U.S. and our interests in the region and around the world. I can’t believe we’re going to make the same mistake again.
SS: But U.S. has been in Afghanistan for a decade - it didn’t manage to defeat Taliban. Where is the guarantee it can help with ISIS?
JN: There are no guarantees in foreign policy. However, the long-term presence of American troops for a decades, not for one decade, but for multiple decades is necessary to build a stable Afghanistan, and in order to help develop a more stable and more secure Pakistan. So, the U.S. has kept U.S. troops stationed in foreign countries, in Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea for multiple generations. The American people are completely fine with those policy decisions, the U.S. troops have helped enable the long term security of the globe and the greatest period of economic expansion and growth the world has ever seen. We need to make the same decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan - it will be good for the region, it will be good for American economic and national security interests. We’ve tried the alternative - we withdrew all american troops from Iraq, and almost immediately we had to go back in, in a fighting war. Shame on us if we don’t learn that lesson and make the same mistake again in Afghanistan.
SS: Allright. Lieutenant-Colonel John Nagl, U.S. military strategist, and a man who helped the U.S. counterinsurgency effort in Iraq and elsewhere, thanks for joining us. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.