US military gives incorrect data on war with ISIS to White House - CIA veteran

As the war in Syria and Iraq drags on, and violence in Afghanistan continues, the War on Terror seems to be lost. Will the US rethink its strategy? Will Washington have enough courage to admit mistakes and learn lessons? Will other countries - including Russia and Iran - be able to overcome their differences and unite in the face of terror? We ask CIA veteran, former National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East, Paul Pillar.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Paul Pillar, CIA veteran, former National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East, ex-deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us. Now, you’ve said that Russian involvement in Syria ought to be reviewed as an opportunity to rethink the Syrian conflict. Does rethinking include cooperation with Russia against Islamic State? Which direction are proposing?

Paul Pillar: Well, when we talk about cooperation, we have to be careful, you know, what kind we’re talking about. The military operations immediately come to mind, and, certainly, U.S. military officials have been very careful on saying “we’re going to de-conflict our operations to make sure there’s no incidents in the air” , and there already have been discussions and, reportedly, agreements the U.S. and Russia military about this.  But, I think, it is important as that is...

SS: But is that enough?

PP: Well, that’s not enough. What’s more important, in the long-run, is going to be the diplomatic cooperation, and here, I think, we’re facing what I consider to be good news, which is multilateral conference in which we’re going to have foreign ministers from the U.S. and Russia and other concerned, outside parties, talking together, really for the first time, in the multilateral context, about ways to try to resolve this conflict, or at least, stop the violence - and that’s the kind of cooperation we are mostly talking about.

SS: You’ve also said the collapse of Assad and the ensuing political and administrative vacuum would lead to even more chaos in Syria - why is Washington so convinced Assad should be removed, yet the outlook to what happens after is so vague?

PP: I  think, Washington, and certainly the Obama Administration, realises, that a sudden collapse, without having a firmly-supported set of agreements and understandings about what the new political order in Syria would be like, would be bad. President Obama in his, I believe that was in his speech to the UNGA, used the term “managed transition” - so we’re not talking about sudden collapse. I thnk, Washington realizes that would be bad. But as to the origin or why the idea of “Assad must go” is so persistent - I think, this is the legacy of the Arab Spring, the high hopes that were gotten up, the idea that whenever there’s unrest and there’s a dictator in power - Saddam Hussein was a dictator, he ought to be overthrown and we ought to try and make the government more democratic… we can argue about whether that’s feasible or not, but  I think that’s the psychology of politics involved.

SS: I think, the bigger question is, why don’t they ever think what happens after the dictator’s removed, wouldn’t you agree?

PP: I would agree that there has been deficiency in thinking about those things, and the two instance that come up again and again and the clearest one, of course, is Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Another one is not so clear, since there already was...

SS: And Libya.

PP: Libya, although that was not something initiated by the U.S. or even the Western governments in general, but it was a matter of intervening while the civil war was already in progress. But I couldn’t agree more that insufficient thought is generally given to what comes after the man at the top has been ousted.

SS: Now, the U.S. program of training the moderate rebel army in Syria has failed. Why didn’t - in your opinion - why didn’t the $500 mn worth of training and equipment turn opposition fighters into an effective force against the ISIL?

PP: So, there has been a disconnect between what’s been talked about in Washington and what a lot of the fighters or would-be fighters on the ground are most interested in. To put it even more clearly: we, in Washington, are more interested in fighting ISIS. A lot of the fighters are more interested in fighting against the Assad regime - and if you don’t have that agreement on priorities, that’s a major handicap to begin with. Another problem is, in any kind of turmoil like this, a civil war situation, moderation loses out to extremism - we’ve seen this again and again from Sri-Lanka, to Algeria, to other places, when order breaks down and violence increases, and the civil war drags on, the extremists tend to push out the moderates. So the sole idea that moderate forces would somehow take over ground from the less moderate forces has always had a bit of unrealism to it, and that’s not just in Syria, but elsewhere.

SS: The U.S. has the world’s top spying capabilities and was very thorough about vetting their rebels - how come it didn’t see any weaknesses in the plan?

PP: Well, every situation is unique, it’s not as if the U.S. has had a lot of practice in overthrowing governments or establishing stability in Syria - and we’ve just talked about these other instances, other Middle-Eastern countries, where, alright, it’s gotten some experience, but it doesn’t seem to have been able to figure out ways of imposing its will so that stability and order and democracy breaks out in these Middle-Eastern countries. The very basic fact is, we’ve got political cultures and sectarian and ethnic conflicts that simply do not provide very fertile ground for establishing a Western-style government or society, however much we would like to establish it. Through the whole Middle East, with all of the unrest, through the years of what we called “the Arab Spring” which is now going on for over 4 years, really, the only bright spot has been Tunisia - and after that, it’s hard to see any other ones. Syria is one of the most extreme and violent cases, but it’s hardly the only example of the dynamic that are in play.

SS: There is a Pentagon probe into claims that some reports from the U.S. Command Syria were skewed to paint a better picture of operations. Does Washington, in your opinion, have a good understanding of what’s actually happening on the ground in Syria?

PP: That doesn’t happen very often, because this is a military command, after all, where people are taught to obey orders and not to speak out publicly. It didn’t surprise me at all, quite frankly, because there was clearly a strong interest on the part of this military command, as would be true of any military command, to show that it’s getting the mission accomplished. And, so there’s a displeasure and a discomfort with any kind of judgements and evidence that would indicate the contrary.. We’ve had a history of this, here in the U.S.. During the Vietnam war we had some cases that were very similar to this, with regard to attention between high-level commands and what lower-level analysts were saying or what was actually going on. So, I think, in terms of the basic facts, probably, there’s a pretty good grasp of what’s going on, and the military commanders know what’s going on; it’s more a matter of how do we couch this judgement or that judgement, so as to make it appear that we’re making progress or not making progress.

SS: Now, you also say that a diplomatic solution is more important than a military one in Syria. So, imagine Islamic State is defeated and Assad has already said that he’s ready for early presidential elections,  but how do you get all sides of the opposition to take part in political regulations?

PP: Well, it’s a very good question, it’s going to be very difficult, but I think as far as what our governments, U.S. and Russian, and other outside governments are concerned, what they can do is to take stock of the leverage and influence they have with the internal parties - that doesn’t mean they can just say: “Do this, do that” and the internal parties will obey, of course not, but they do have influence. This was the basis for how I saw the Russian intervention. However much of a complication that it certainly is, as having a couple of aspects to it, that do pose an opportunity. Presumably, this additional Russian military assistance, does increase the Assad regime’s and the dependence of president Assad himself, their dependence on Russian support, and that ought to give Moscow more leverage that it had before. The other thing is that insofar as the government of Russia is expending resources and will sustain casualties if it continues its effort, that gives an added incentive to President Putin to do what he can to try and resolve this conflict and not just let it go on and on for years. Russian government has no interest, I’m sure, in propping a beleaguered regime for years and years, that simply doesn’t do Russia any good.

SS: About resources: the West is financing moderate rebels. How do you tell which ones are really moderate, and which want Sharia law? How do you make the difference? I spoke to journalist, who went to Syria, he was embedded in one of the rebel units, and what he told me is that all rebels are fighting to establish a Sharia-Islamic state in Syria.

PP: Excellent question, and we really ought to add that to the couple of points I made earlier about why the training and equipment program has yielded such puny results for a lot of expenditure. It is impossible for the most part to predict, while a civil war is going on, who is going to follow a moderate political course or an extreme political course once the dust settles, and we have some new political order. Fighting a civil war is an inherently immoderate thing to do, so in that sense, anyone who picks up a gun and starts shooting fellow Syrians is an extremists - but that doesn’t tell us anything one way or another, as to who is going to be radical jihadist, who is going to be moderate islamist, or who is going to be extreme or not extreme if they were give political power - and that has been an additional problem with this so-called “vetting” of rebels to see who would or would not receive Western aid.

SS: Pentagon chief Ash Carter has stated that direct action on the ground is now an option in the U.S. fight against ISIS. Do you think that will work?

PP: That’s an interesting departure, and they were referring, in particular to the Iraqi side, where so far Obama administration has been making a large point that they don’t have boots on the ground. That position was breached when there was a raid to free some prisoners in ISIS prison, just the other day, and there was one U.S. army member who was killed in the operation, so, it will be rather unrealistic for the Administration to try to hide the fact that U.S. personnel are in harm's’ way and might get in additional harms’ way. As a matter of tactical military accomplishment - yes, it might help things in certain places on the ground, but ultimately, the defeat of ISIS - just to stick to the Iraqi side for a moment - is going to depend on the involvement of and the support of Iraqis, especially Sunni Iraqis in the western parts of the country where ISIS has established itself. There’s no way in which any foreign force, whether it is U.S. or Russian or anybody else, is ever going to be able to resolve that situation in the permanent sort of way, if they don’t they have the involvement and support of the locals.

SS: Since you brought up Iraq, you know, I wanted to ask you that the U.S. has already… it has military advisors and personnel on the ground helping the Iraqi army, and there’s also help from Iran and the Kurds, they are beating the Islamic State - now with all this, why is ISIS still a potent force in Iraq?

PP: There are a number of reasons, but the main reason has been a lack of confidence, among enough, especially, Sunni Iraqis in the direction of the government in Baghdad, which is dominated by Shia. We do have a prime minister - or the Iraqis have the prime minister today, mr. Abadi, who is less sectarian and less authoritarian that his predecessor, mr. Maliki, but I think we still lack a sense among the typical Iraqi Sunni in Anbar province in the west that the government in Baghdad is acting on behalf of that citizen. Until that sense is established, and that is going to have a lot to do with the direction of Baghdad's overall policies in months and years ahead, then any kind of outside military support is still not going to be enough to dislodge ISIS.

SS: Back in 2006, you wrote that the relationship between the American policymakers and intelligence agencies is broken and badly needs repair. Has that changed today?

PP: Well, I was talking about some of the inherent tensions here - and we picked on a couple of those when we spoke earlier in the hour about the issues involving intelligence analysts and the Central Command, and I referred back to the similar experiences in Vietnam. So, it’s not something that can be fixed or can go away. I am still bothered, and I guess my short answer to your question is “no, it hasn’t been fixed”. I am still bothered by the fact that some of the things that I wrote about with regard of the Iraq war, still have not been recognized as ways in which the U.S. government machine did not operate the way it’s supposed to. In particular, in all the inquiries that would come afterwards from Congress and from independent commissions and so on, there’s never been any acknowledgement of any politisation. I think this is different from, say, the UK, where you had the Butler Report which looked in the osme of  the same issues and did explicitly acknowledge as one of the findings in the report that there was an improper commingling of policy considerations and intelligence judgements. I think we had something of the same thing going on in the U.S., but we’ve had nothing like the Butler Report, no official statement that has acknowledged that - so, in that sense,no, it hasn’t been fixed.

SS: Now, the U.S. troops left Iraq, or at least, war is proclaimed to be over, but there’s still in Afghanistan. Fourteen years of war, and the Taliban is now on its biggest offensive since the start of the fight. Has the U.S. failed in Afghanistan? Or does it need more time?

PP: Well, I wouldn't’ say “more time” because the question merely comes up - if 14 years isn’t enough, then how many more years will be enough? And I don’t think anyone’s really answered that question. You can add further question: if we couldn’t accomplish it with close to 200,000 troops, then what are we going to do with 5,500? We have had, in this parallel, somewhat, the change in Baghdad that I referred to earlier. Some improvement in the political scene in Afghanistan, in that, president Ghani who is governing, in effect, in a coalition with his principle election opponent Abdullah Abdullah, is a far more reasonable, accommodating sort of person, in my judgement, than Hamid Karzai became towards the end of his rule. I suppose the one ground for hope is, and this would be my answer in terms of what we can do, it’s more working on the political side of things - supporting mr. Ghani and dr. Abdullah in ways that will encourage further consensus politics in Afghanistan, making further deals among the various ethnic groups that may try to tamp down this conflict through political means, more so than military means - and that does mean striking deals with the Taliban.

SS: Doctor, another major foreign policy achievement is the Iran nuclear deal, but it’s not viewed as such by most American officials. House speaker, John Boehner, said “a more responsible Iran is a myth”. Foreign affairs committee chief Ed Royce says: “the next few years will be a disaster”. Now Iran is eager to have sanctions lifted and it's proving its readiness to cooperate. What can potentially go wrong?

PP: Oh, there’s a lot that can potentially go wrong, since, as your quotations indicated, the opponents here in the U.S. simply haven’t given up, and part of the subtext of that is that this agreement, I think, most people correctly perceive as probably the most significant foreign policy achievement of Barack Obama. So, people who are opposed to everything that Barack Obama does, which includes much of the Republican Party these days, they will continue to try to undermine this and try to kill it, even though it’s now been gone into effect, and we had Adoption Day the other day. So, the main thing that could go wrong, I think, is the Congressional action that would either prevent the lifting of, or impose new sanctions on Iraq under the guise of some issue other than the nuclear issue - in other words, sanctions because of terrorism or because of something else. The Iranians aren’t going to stand for that, they will quickly say: “you’re simply reneging on your deal and calling something else” - that’s what I worry about the most. The Administration can handle this through waivers and so, but I think we’re not out of woods yet on this.

SS: There’s a lot of authority used in the U.S. diplomacy: for instance, this so and so has to go, or this country must do that - the language the State Department uses, sometimes, sounds very condescending; even rude, at times. Why is it so undiplomatic, in your opinion? Is it actually aimed at the domestic audience more than outside of the U.S.?

PP: The short answer is “yes” and I would not accuse the State Department of using immoderate, absolute language, because it is incredibly tame and very accommodating compared to the typical language that’s used in political discourse here in Washington and on Capitol Hill. So, yes, it has to, to some degree, sound in a way that you described, as harsh or demanding, because anything less than that would be immediately denounced across much of the political spectrum, but certainly the right half of it here in the U.S., as being “weak”, as “not standing up for U.S. interests”, as not exploiting and taking advantage of U.S. power, and it simply would not fly politically.

SS: The people who conduct U.S. foreign policy are not always professionals, right - in a way that important posts go to those who help in election campaigns, not necessarily experienced diplomats and negotiators. Does that take something away from the efficiency of the U.S. diplomacy? Is  this why sometimes U.S. foreign policy relies more on force, I’d say, rather than negotiations?

PP: Well, realizing you’re talking to retired career official, so I have my own biases here… I could certainly agree that the practice of having the whole armies of political appointees coming every 4 years or 8 years is not the best way to run foreign policy, I couldn’t agree more and this has been most acute, of course, with regard to ambassadorial assignments, where a good third of the posts go to people whose main distinction was contributing campaign money to the winning presidential candidate and that’s not a way to run diplomacy, either. All that said, I do have faith in the people at the top right now, I  think John Kerry has been an outstanding Secretary of State. He was an elected politician, of course, for the most of his career, he’s a son of the carrier diplomat. He was chairman of the Senate Foreign relations Committee before he became a Secretary of State - he has displayed tremendous dedication and energy and a lot of ingenuity. I think he deserves great credit for his personal role in the Iran nuclear agreement, and I feel very comfortable with somebody like that running U.S. diplomacy.

SS: Dr. Pillar, thank you so much for this interview. We were talking to CIA veteran Paul Pillar, discussing international efforts against ISIS and the possibility of cooperation between U.S. and Russia on the terror front. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.