Ex-US military intel chief: Washington's strategy against ISIS narrow & one-dimensional

The ‘civilized’ world is losing the war against terrorism. Jihadist attacks now take place in the midst of nations, strikes coming unexpectedly. Intelligence forces may be doing their best, but this is a fight in which every mistake, every missed extremist costs human lives. Nations can’t seem to work out a coalition to combat Islamic State or put an end to the financing of jihadists - and some of America’s allies play a double game. Is there a way out? Will the world come to its senses and extinguish extremism?

In this special anniversary edition of Sophie&Co we talk to the former chief of US military intelligence, General Michael T. Flynn.

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SS: I’m gonna jump right in, because I know you’ve seen the war inside out, you know how the military politics of America’s allies works, so - still, until this day, we’re kind mind boggled, what’s on everyone’s mind is why did Turkey shot down Russian plane, what’s your take on that?

MF: First of all, thank you so much for inviting me and having me here. So, first of all, why did that happen? That happened because we have failed to understand the dynamics that are occurring in the middle east and the international relationships that we’ve had over many-many years have not gotten to a point where we are strong enough as an international body to face this very-very determined threat that we’re facing. I think that we have to understand, there are going to be more of these instances, and I think that the leaders of these nations that are in this so-called “international coalition” have to understand how we’re going to deal with this type of extremists - because we don’t want these incidents that are going to happen, we do not want them to be the cause of something greater that we’re already facing.

SS: But, okay, if we don’t these incidents to happen, maybe we should deconstruct this particular one little more and try to understand the real reasons behind. What was behind Turkey’s motives to shoot Russia’s plane and why would you want to just spoil a perfectly nice friendly relationship with your neighboring country?

MF: I just think that to focus on this issue is… I think it’s important, because the action caused a second, third, fourth order effect, that I don’t think that the Turks clearly understood. I’ve said this and I believe that Turkey needs to do more against the threat of the movement of foreign fighters in and out across their borders, some of the black market oil that’s going across their borders. I also think that there needs to be greater cooperation by this international community along these borders, the sovereign borders that do exist, still exist, but are definitely challenged.

SS: You’ve started a conversation by saying that unfortunately, unless we take care of this, we’re going to see more and more incidents like that - so when something like that happens, right, Turkey shoots down Russian plane, what are we ought to do? I mean, does Turkey expect us just to sit back and not retaliate? I mean, no one wants escalation, but what are we ought to do? Are we not to react? What does Turkey expect?

MF: I don’t know what Turkey expects, I don’t know what Russia expects. I know what the contributing nations of the world expect, is that those who are contributing to the greater good of stability, security, prosperity, we have to figure out how to deal with this problem, and I’m not one to look back, because I can give you all the history going back many-many centuries, if you want, but we have created some of these problems, and I got that. Now we have to figure out how to move forward - and in order for us to not move to a greater level of conflict between the great nations of the world, we have to come to grips of how do we work together, how do we take interests, interests that are converging. So we have a whole set of converging interests that we are seeing right now, and unless we understand it, we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to make tactical mistakes that are going to lead to strategic consequences.

SS: From what I understand, we all want ISIS down, right, that is our biggest interest, this is a common threat we’re facing, we’re in a generational-long fight against fundamental Islam, so - Turkish links to ISIS and to the oil trade with the terror group have been known, and have been a concern way before this whole thing happened with Russia. So, my question is, could we really expect Turkey who is somewhat of an ally to fight against ISIS when it profits from it?

MF: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of people profiting from ISIS. I think, number one, we have to collectively, together, we have to clearly define the enemy that we’re facing. We have to clearly define our enemy. This is a cancerous form inside of the Islamic religion and people tend to use the phrase “radical Islamists”, and I think that that’s a good definition. I’ve heard one word in Arabic, “fa hish” which means “beyond despicable” and I think that it’s even a better word that we see, this other word that’s used - Daesh - this is an enemy that emanated from this region, Middle East, and it is now geographically dispersed, geographically dispersed here in Russia, it’s geographically dispersed in Europe, certainly in the U.S. - we have seen all these various attacks just recently, Russia had its own issues in 2002, in Moscow at the theater, in 2004 in North Ossetia, where the same ideology killed children. I mean, this attack in California recently, it was against social services organisation, I mean, it’s just unbelievable.

SS: The President Obama seems to think that he’s containing ISIS.

MF: Yeah, I know he said that and I disagree with that. I definitely disagree with that. I disagree with the context of how we have said “our strategy is working” or not working. I do believe that the U.S. must step up into a greater leadership role. One of the big issues, Sophie, and I think that this is important for this audience, that a year ago, before Russia decided, before President Putin decided to take the step that he took into Syria, that the situation was fundamentally different, there was potential there with some of us who are really pushing our Administration to do more, not just militarily, but change the entire economic system that exists in the Middle East and I can talk to that, if you’d like. But when, suddenly, Russia shows up, so the stadium, the football stadium, if you will, of the Middle East, Russia put themselves on the field, and that fundamentally changed the dynamics of this very geostrategic game that we’re in right now. It’s not a game, this is very real. Tactically, what you have to remember is that this is an enemy that doesn’t have jets and drones and missiles and all these ships, this is an enemy that gets attacked by bombs from the sky - drones or jets, artillery - and how do they counter-attack? They show up in downtown Paris, they show up in downtown Moscow, they show up in some place called San-Bernardino - that’s how they counter-attack. So, when we think about warfare, and we think about the battlefield, this is not just toe-to-toe in a place called Raqqa or in a place called Mosul or in Fallujah in Iraq and Syria. This is a global contest and the way this enemy has decided to retaliate, is they are retaliating by instilling fear - this is a terror force, this is not a thug force, this is not a cult, this is not a criminal organisation. This is a terrorist organisation, based on a very radical form of Islamism.

SS: But, General, okay, the problem is that some may think they’re smarter than all of us together, because for some reason we can’t get anti-ISIS front up and running. Lately, this incident with Russian plane being shot down, really hampered the efforts, because Russia and France obviously want a grand coalition of coalitions, but America is saying “no, just join the coalition that we’re leading” - is anyone going to budge? I mean, are we going to just come together and fight it?

MF: Let’s get real. There’s a phrase that I love, it’s “Truth fears no questions”. And, one of the things that I think we have to do is we have to be just brutally, brutally honest with ourselves, about… This sort of political correctness of how we are calling a religion out, calling a large segment of society out - I mean, the Arab community, Muslim world, the leaders in the Muslim world, the leading Imams and leading clerics in Muslim world must call this enemy out the way that they know...

SS: They have. I don’t think it’s working.

MF: They have not in the way that they need to. So, that’s a part of it, Sophie. The other part of it is that we have to look at each other, we look at the U.S., we look at Europe, we look at Russian Federation, and we examine this math problem that we’re facing, and this math problem that we’re facing is a demographic shift in the world - that’s happening. And when you begin to look at where that demographic shift is going to occur - it’s in places like North Africa, it’s in places like Central Asia, it’s in places like the Middle East, it’s in places like South Asia and South-East Asia. So, we have to begin to understand that this is not an East-West world, folks, that’s actually more of a North-South world, and we have to decide - U.S., Europe, Russia and other, other countries, countries in South America, maybe and even China and India, how do we want the world to be over the course of the next 10 years, 25 years, 50 years. I mean, this is not about… and don’t believe for a second that we’re going to defeat the Islamic State in 2 years. This has been described as a Hundred-Year War. I can’t see that far, I can’t think that far, but I can certainly think much further than the next 4 years and a presidential election in the U.S.

SS: I’ve got to ask you, because I know you know about this much more than I do: I want specifics. I know that America is, right now, backing Turkey after they shot down the plane, and they're saying “Oh, it’s okay, the oil trade with ISIS and Turkey is insignificant”. I know that America is backing Qatar, I know America is backing one of the biggest Salafist nations in the world, and may I add, one of the most backward regimes in the world - Saudi Arabia that is arming extremist rebels in Syria. I know that America is actually financing the Kurds, which is a good thing, in Syria, but how come the same Kurds are being bombed by America’s biggest ally - Turkey? I mean, unless we sort these things out or get some answers on why this is happening, how can we all fight ISIS together?

MF: That’s a great question. For those who are paying very close attention, Sophie, in 30 seconds, just describe the incredible complexity of this environment that we are in. What we have to do is to step back! We’re going to have to step back from this thing, instead of diving in with tactical capabilities and trying to think that we’re going to solve this by killing more people. Sadly, for all the people that want peace - peace is not the normal state, if you look at world history, and that doesn't mean I believe in warfare, I just know that in order to… you know, the best defence to have is a function of being able to demonstrate that, and I think that we’re going to have to demonstrate more of our military capabilities for a period, but what we really have to do is to step back and say, “Okay, how do we want this region to be?” - because it’s not just two countries, it’s not just Syria and Iraq. It’s not just Lebanon and Jordan and the Saudis - it’s much greater than that. It stretches all the way over to West Africa, it stretches over….we know the IS now exists, they have a component in India, they have a component in Burma, they have a component in Afghanistan, and we have already seen  threats inside of the Russian Federation, we have seen direct and very active threats inside of Europe and we just had one in the U.S. So, it’s an idea that came from afar, this ideology came from afar, but know it is actually being home grown. So, we are going to have to step back.

SS: I’m talking about double standards, while we’re fighting ISIS, okay, and “double standard” meaning, you know, how can you fight ISIS if you’re backing people who are arming them. “Double standard” meaning ignoring your warning, when you were back in office in 2012 about the rise of ISIS, and, maybe, even, you know, think that it’s a willful decision to ignore your warnings about rise of ISIS. Is this not double standards?

MF: I don’t think it’s double standards, I think it’s not smart.

SS: Why were your warnings ignored?

MF: Because, as I’ve said very publicly, it’s a narrative… Our political system at the time, it did not fit a narrative for the election, for the national election. I have said, let’s be very honest with ourselves here, particularly in the U.S…

SS: So war on terror is just like a sidekick that is used for the elections to get votes?

MF: It’s more than that, this is trying to transcend, and again, we’re here in Moscow, having this conversation, and I’m trying to find ways of… when people ask me “what is it that you want?” - what do I want? I want stability in the middle east, or, essentially, in the Arab world, roughly 450 million people, so they’re not stable. 50 million of those people are out of jobs, and it’s like water - you know, it flows to the least resistant path, and so many of those people that don’t have jobs are young men, and those young men will go elsewhere, so this back and forth, and do I appreciate and do respect it, because we have to have this debate, we absolutely have to have this debate, and we have to have it now, and we can’t… I am speaking as private citizen, but the U.S. can’t sit  there and go: “Russia, you’re bad”, Russia can’t sit there and be “U.S., you’re bad!” - what we have to do, like we have done in the past, and I can go into a couple of historical examples, where Europe would not be the Europe that it is today, thriving, had it not been for Russia and the U.S. working together 75 years ago, and in other places, where we have worked together… so this idea of us not being able to work together is a misnomer, and I think that we have to step back and we have to say: “Okay, what are the common interests, and what are the common goals that we want to achieve” - and those goals, I believe, the number one goal is to eliminate this cancerous idea that exists inside the Islamic religion. We must do that, and the arab world, arab leaders have big responsibility, both Shia and Sunni, huge responsibility, and I think that the second common goal is to, then, achieve some level of stability in the Middle East, that creates a new set of economic conditions to deal with these, frankly, these 15-30 year old young men, that exist.

SS: I agree with you, but we’re talking in general terms right now.

MF: Yes.

SS: How do we get down to it? How does America trust Russia, if it doesn’t even trust the intelligence data collected by its intelligence services?

MF: Stop being like two bullies in the playground! Quit acting immature with each other and know that I “have a disagreement with you - you have a disagreement with me.” This is funny marriage between Russia and the U.S. But it’s a marriage, whether we like it or not, and that marriage is very-very rocky right now.

SS: It’s going up and down.

MF: And what we don’t need, is that we don’t need that marriage to break up. We’ve had our break ups in the past, but we need to look at this - I mean, I’m deadly serious about this, because I know this enemy. I think, there are some in this country that know this enemy from having dealt with it in Chechnya and Dagestan and other places. This is a very-very deadly enemy that we’re facing, and it’s not just hundreds or thousands, these numbers are much greater.

SS: But I need some concrete things for me. Let’s do some marriage counselling here.

MF: It’s good.

SS: So, Obama has said “this strategy that we’re pursuing is the right one in Syria” - what is it? What is his strategy in Syria? I need to understand this for us to figure out where marriage is going.

MF: It’s very one-dimensional. I think it’s more turning to our military and kinda giving it to our military and saying “you solve it” - more special forces, more air, those kinds of things - this is very one-dimensional. We talk a bigger game of financial and diplomacy and we see the various meetings that are going on around the world, but I think that this has to be a different set of pressure, or pressures as plural. Pressure being applied to, equally, to places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, as examples - because we cannot have this war, this civil war that’s going on…

SS: When you say “pressure on Saudi Arabia” - I mean, for Iran, I understand Russia should put pressure, but what do you expect America to do in terms of pressuring Saudi Arabia?

MF: The funding that comes out of the region…

SS: From Saudi Arabia and Qatar, right?

MF: Of the whole region, I mean, principally, those countries, but, like Arab leaders have said to me, “give me the name of somebody, and we’ll go deal with them” - so we have to very precise when we say “The Saudis are funding” or “Qatar is funding”, and we also have to be the same with Iran, because Iran cannot continue to go the way it’s going and we can’t keep backing them, because we’re going to have this sectarian civil war, which is another complexity of this problem. Otherwise it’s going to lead to the nations that we’re talking about, really, Russia and the U.S., to actually become more tense with each other, and we don’t that. What we want is we actually want to work together to figure out how do we separate the warring parties, how do we do it diplomatically. We can have negotiations at some sort of big old table in Brussels or wherever. That’s not going to eliminate  the enemy. To eliminate this enemy, it’s going to take, partly, it is going to take, as President el-Sisi of Egypt has called for, “some type of Reformation of the Islamic religion”. That has to happen, and it has to be in both components, both Shia and Sunni. It has to occur. We cannot have the Salafists and Wahhabist groups strangle or choke hold the rest of what we call the moderate Muslim world - which is a large contingent.

SS: General. Tell me honestly, would we even be here, talking about the mess in the Middle East, is March of 2003 didn’t happen, when countries like France, Germany, Russia, China did not back the invasion of Iraq, a then, you know, which has went by the domino effect - you have Iraq, you have Syria, you have Yemen, would we even be in this mess right now?

MF: That’s a good question. I think, historically, that decision, obviously, is a huge strategic error, and history will not be kind to that decision, but I don’t believe that that was the one thing that caused everything that we’re facing.

SS: Was that the catalyst, though?

MF: We can go way back to some, you know, last 30, 40 years even, some writings of different individuals that are fuelling this - I mean, to include Osama bin Laden in the 90s, post-era operations against Russia in Afghanistan… I mean, there’s been some very-very interesting things that they have said all prior to that. Now, that particular decision to go into Iraq, instead of continuing to deal with, really, what I call “the wolf closest to sled”, which would have been in Afghanistan - the history will not be kind to those who made that decision.

SS: General, thank you so much for this wonderful talk. Let’s give a round of applause to General.