Even with the defeat of ISIS, the war on terror will go on – ex-US Army general

We’ve been told that ISIS is on the brink of defeat. Yet the group still keeps large swaths of Syria and Iraq still under its control – and carries out attack after attack in Europe. So what will it take to defeat ISIS on the ground – and will it ever be gone for good? We ask retired US Army Major General Paul Vallely.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Major General Paul Vallely, ex-Deputy Commander for the US Army Pacific - welcome to the show, great to have you wit us. Now, The latest in the series of leaks from inside the US intelligence community: the New York Times published forensic photos of the Manchester bombing scene, angering British officials. What’s going on inside American intelligence? Can it no longer be trusted, not even on matters like terrorism?

Paul Vallely: All governments face that situation where inside people leak information to the press, TV, radio, newspapers, and the same thing has been happening at a very great degree in the Trump administration from insiders and the investigation is going on now to find those leakers, whether they are in the White House or in the intelligence services. So...

SS:  Britain temporarily suspended intel sharing with the U.S. about the Manchester attack and investigation - in your opinion how can the U.S. regain the trust of its allies now?

PV: They are sharing information again. There was a break down, and I'm not sure exactly what it was, but I think the confidence levels now have been restored to a great degree and I think you'll see further cooperation between British sources and intelligence and U.S. intelligence.

SS:But, because the situation’s so iffy, do you feel like we should be scared of more leaks from inside the White House?

PV: Again, Sophie, all the governments have this problem and they have to tighten up the agencies and the organisations within the government. We certainly need to do that within the U.S. government. As I said, there are investigations going on now, regarding all those leaks, the leaks that came out, supposedly, against Russia, which we find there's no background or validity to, but there seems to be a line from the leakers inside our government to two major newspapers - the Washington Post and the New York Times, and of course, it's carried on on television throughout the different networks in America.

SS:U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has warned against a spillover of ISIL terrorism, after it’s pushed out of Syria and Iraq - is this what we’re witnessing already, the UK, America, Russia, France, Germany - all falling victim to terrorism?

PV: Absolutely. Radical Islamic terrorism emanating out of the Middle East and being extended across the borders in Europe and even in Russia, and of course, in the United States. At a result of the meeting we had in Moscow over a month ago at the Valdai conference, the Arab leaders there, their representatives, and we as well, do believe that ISIS will be neutralised and basically terminated, its operations in what they call "the Levant", particularly in Syria and Iraq… and they're going to continue to invigorate the cells that they have supported particularly in Europe, in Great Britain and France. So, it's going to be a continued problem, but, also in North Africa and some other areas now - once they clean up ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

SS:Barack Obama’s goal was to ‘contain’ ISIL - Trump’s, according to Secretary of Defense Mattis, is more along the lines of ‘annihilating’ the terror  group. Is either of these strategies realistic?

PV: The strategy under Obama - to contain ISIS - and other European leaders did not work at all. I knew that at the time, I’ve said in many interviews that I have done that you have to have a strategy and employ tactics that are going to completely annihilate and destroy what we call their nest, where they've been working out of, such as Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria. So that's the plan right now, the strategic plan as well as tactical plan to employ what we call "Joint Operation Forces" that actually target the ISIS locations and destroy them on the ground and at the same time destroy their capability in the cyber world as well as immigration control and so on. So, there's a lot of parts to this whole strategy and tactics that are now at work.

SS:The annihilation of terrorists means more risks for an increased U.S. contingent on the ground - combat deaths have already occurred, can this escalate out of control?  

PV: No, not with our current leadership under General Mattis and President Trump, you'll not see it go out of control, you'll see it very well planned out as you've seen in the last 90 days, you'll see exact targeting. We're not going to tell anymore what we're going to do, we're actually going to conduct those operations, much like the Russians do - the Russians don't telegraph what they're going to do, they just do it, and Trump knows this as well, so you're going to find out what has happened after the situation, not before, and maybe not even during. So be prepared to watch many situations occurring. We see, as a result of Trump's visit in the Middle East, General Sisi taking out ISIS pockets in Libya. So, you're going to see a much more aggressive Arab nation attack on ISIS forces as well.

SS:When the U.S. war on terror started in 2001, terrorism was different. The latest attacks we’re seeing are carried out by local terror cells or lone wolf attackers using guns, knives, or even vehicles - does the U.S. have an up to date strategy for fighting this new kind of terror threat at home?

PV: Yes, we've been working on it for years and there are several parts to that strategy. Number one is vetting of refugees, more briefings that occur or I should say de-briefings that occur at the points of entry in the United States, there are debarkation areas, say, from Europe or other parts of the world. So, we're focused now on determining who's coming to the United States and who's not, and then gather and develop that intelligence base on particular threats. Now, I don't buy the term "lone wolf" - these individuals have all been radicalised at some point in time through the mosques throughout the world or over the Internet. So, this is very well-planned out by ISIS caliphate if we could call them that.

SS:You’ve written a book about “Ending the war on terror” - that was in 2004, and the war on terror is still raging. It turns out there’s no ready-made recipe to end this, is there?

PV: It's not a recipe. Again, you have to look at where these threats are emanating from - the Taliban and some of the training camps that they have, for example, in Afghanistan, and still in Pakistan. You have to look at Libya, you have to look at these areas in Somalia, for example. That's why you have to come up with a very specific strategic and tactical plan to go after them where they are located and disrupt their operation, and the very important thing is to cut off the financing. So we have to find out where this money is coming from, how it's being transported to the ISIS leaders, and that's got to be cut off. So that's a multifaceted strategy here that has to take place and that's what we're working on in the United States.

SS:The U.S. President has called on Arab states to become more involved in the fight against terrorism, during Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia is itself accused of backing terrorist groups, of spreading religious extremism – has the President been naive here?

PV: He's not naive at all. He understands that 16 out of 19 hijackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia. He also understands what happens in Medina and Mecca, where we have the Salafists and we have the Wahhabists supporting and spreading this radical ideology. So, President Trump knows that, I think the Royal family, the King knows that. They know that they have to destroy it within their own country, like President Trump told all them: "You have to push it out, you've got to get them out of your society, out of your mosques, you've got to get them out of your schools, you've got to take charge and you've got to have momentum, working with United States and other countries - so this is a whole new era we're looking at now, Sophie, since President's Trump visit to Saudi Arabia two weeks ago.

SS:How can Trump make sure U.S. Sunni allies do more in the fight against terror? Surely it’ll take more than a speech to make them move?

PV: Sure it does. It takes leadership, it takes talking to them, it takes joint planning, for example. When I was in Moscow, a month and a half ago, I had a very good meeting with the full Colonel of the Saudi Army and we had a very good discussion about what was going on there. We have a lot of intelligence, planning, we have to have tactics that were working with the forces over there, and joint operations, whether it will be the air forces or whether it will be ground forces, or the Special Operation force - you call them in Russia "the Spetznaz" - so all of these things have to be put together in a well-coordinated plan, and it's all doable, believe me.

SS:The Americans are involved in the battle for Mosul in Iraq - retaking the city from ISIS has taken 7 months up till now. With Iraqi troops unable to stand their ground without US help, will the Americans have to keep their troops in Iraq for years to come?  

PV: Certainly, the Iraqi forces have been trained and supported by advisors for some years now, since U.S. forces departed from Iraq. So we continue to provide them air, ground support operations, intelligence backup, we also have our Special Operations forces working with the advanced Iraqi Special Forces groups in the attack on those areas. Yeah, it's been very slow, I think we could've accomplished much more earlier and not taking so long, but I understand 2/3 of Mosul now has been taken, just some specific areas in the Eastern Mosul have to be controlled at this point in time, and hopefully that will be done by the end of June.

SS:The Mosul campaign has become bogged down in street  fighting, and the promised push to retake Raqqa isn’t even on the cards yet - how long is this going to play out for? What's your opinion?

PV: Based on the Valdai conference, where we had many leaders from the Middle East, this will all be accomplished by the end of this year. So, we're talking the next 4-5 months specifically, and I think it's very doable. Raqqa now, if you look at some of the reports that have come out, the ISIS forces are attempting to leave the area now, they're trying to go back through Turkey, back over into Europe or England or other places where they've been, and they're finding it very difficult, because now, the noose is tightening around them, in Raqqa and other cities over there, and so ISIS is on the downturn and only because they cannot continue to support their forces - so, they're in a very difficult situation right now, not a good situation.

SS:The Asia Pacific region is facing a growing threat from the Islamic State, ISIS -affiliated terrorists are raising their flags in cities in the Philippines, conducting bombings in Indonesia - while international coalition forces drive ISIS out of the Middle East, is it going to find new supporters in Asia?

PV: They’ve been there for quite a while, even in Western China, where they had radical Islamic forces over there, some of them were captured and put in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, so we see that radical Islamic groups have been there for quite a while and surface every once in a while, but the Filipinos and their armed forces have been able to keep it under control. But, you have the largest Muslim area in the world, which is Indonesia - the greatest population. So, they've been infiltrated in there, by groups like Al-Qaeda, for example, Abu Sayyaf and others in that area, in Indonesia and Philippines. So, they are there and they're going to continue to try and strengthen themselves and look for activity in that area.

SS:American troops have participated in anti-terrorist operations alongside Filipino forces before - can US forces once again become involved in the counterterror fight there?

PV: I think they can. Some very bad situation has developed under Obama and the Philippine leadership, and of course, the new Philippine President has been very anti-Obama, when he was in. But now you may see stronger relationship develop. We have forces there, by the way, already, some intel and Special Operations forces that are operating in the Philippines still, but you may see an uptick maybe in air operations or some naval operations over there to help strengthen the Philippine government against their fight against radical Islam.

SS:ISIS is establishing a foothold in Afghanistan as well - where, after 17 years of spending American blood and treasure, the country is still fending off terrorist attacks and its position is getting worse and worse. Why is the US-trained, US-supplied army failing so badly?

PV: I can name a number of reasons, I’m in the belief that Afghanistan is not a threat to the U.S. at this point in time, I think it's a regional problem that should be solved by the -stans over there - Pakistan as well as India, but certainly, we need to change our strategy there, in my opinion. We, basically, won over there in October-November of 2001, when we destroyed the Taliban in 34 days with over a 100 special operations troops and airpower. And then we decided to go into the "nation-building" in there and trying to extend democracy, and plenty of us knew at the time that it's not going to work - so we definitely have to look at the new strategy, and I know that Trump, President is looking at that now and we may see more happen over that in maybe the next 30 days, we need to have a change of policy there, for sure.

SS:How long do you think American troops will stay in Afghanistan? It may cost money, but Pentagon actually likes having a permanent war going on, a place to test tactics and weapons, and keep the army from losing shape?

PV: No, I don't think that's going to be strategy and policy under President Trump, I think it's a matter of how we withdraw from that area just like Russia had withdrawn and again, my feeling is, put it in the hands of the regional powers over there, make it their problem to solve, because we certainly can't afford to put billions and billions of dollars in Afghanistan anymore, we've got too many challenges here in America that we need to take the taxpayer’s money to support rather than some of these wars that were started under the Bush administration.

SS:You’ve said that the U.S. is not going to solve the situation in Syria without working with Russia and Turkey - but right now all three seem to be on different pages. How do you picture them working together?

PV: We know Russia's been working with the Turks, even though the bad situation developed when the Turks shot down the Russian jet, we've had meetings in Turkey jointly between Russians and the Turks - that occurred about a month ago. I would forecast, Sophie, that Putin and Trump are going to make some time in June or July and hopefully that's going to come about. Erdogan has been to Washington and he was just at the meetings that they had in the Middle East and the G7 meetings - so there's dialogue going on between our intelligence people, our military, State Department, and of course, at the presidential level, so I think we have more cooperation now than we've ever had and we're going to come up with some good solutions, I think. At the Valdai I presented the "Syrian Renaissance" plan - how to solve the refugee situation by creating safe zones in Syria and also starting up to reunify Syria with an interim government.

SS:But if we're talking about concrete stumbling blocks that we're facing right now in Syria - the U.S. sees the Kurdish militia forces as essential to defeating ISIL, but that’s riling another U.S. ally - Turkey. What will Washington do if one starts openly fighting the other?

PV: I don't think that's going to occur. I don't think we're going to see Russia fighting the U.S. or Turkey fighting the U.S. and those three major powers over there - the big problem is Iran, and how Russia, United States and Turkey are going to deal with Iran, because Iran still is a player inside of Syria. But certainly, I think that these countries have an opportunity now to continue some planning and get some solutions over there - particularly the ones that then will help the refugee problem which is plaguing not only countries like Jordan, but also Turkey, the European countries and for some degree even in Russia. You may recall, five thousand Chechens, radical Islamists from Chechnya have been fighting in Syria and Iraq. So that's a problem. Then again, we've got to work with Russians to destroy that kind of situation of training and sending these people into the ISIS areas.

SS:Even if Trump is open to making a deal with Moscow, how will he work around those in the military who still distrust Russia?

PV: That's a matter of, again, leadership, and I've, as you know, have said that we're not going to solve the problems in Syria and other places over there in the Middle East without working with Russia. Just like we how we had to work with Stalin in WWII to defeat the Nazis, how Gorbachev and Reagan had to work together to bring down the Wall and for all intents and purposes, ending the Cold war! So good leaders can make these things happen, Sophie, and that's what it's all about. I think Putin, I think Erdogan, and I think Trump are going to come some conclusions that will help solve the problems over there rather than continuing to plague the country, and restore some kind of Renaissance in the Middle East.

SS:But what can a good leader do in this situation? For instance, in one of your interviews you even said that there’s a contingent of old CIA types that still regard Russia as the main threat - so does the president have to fire them all, hire new ones, to overcome this sentiment - of course if he wishes to?

PV: Sure. That's going on right now within the CIA and State Department, and taking those people that have been supportive of a very bad strategy and policy under Obama and also even under President Bush. So, as we talk now, there are more people that are leaving those positions, and we're bringing more qualified people that can work and conduct the policy of President Trump. It should have been done sooner, you know, even at the beginning, when Trump took over, I would've relieved a lot of people that I knew about in positions and put new people in. But it's difficult when you change your government, as you may well know - it takes time.

SS:General, thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Major General Paul Vallely, ex-Deputy commander for the US Army Pacific, discussing the mounting challenges in the fight against terrorism for America and its allies. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.