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How ISIL capitalized on vulnerabilities of Iraq’s security forces

June 24, 2014 at 6:12 PM EDT
The United Nations estimates that, at minimum, 1,000 people have been killed in two weeks of fighting in Iraq. Judy Woodruff talks to two former U.S. Army officers who served in Iraq -- retired Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant and retired Col. Derek Harvey -- about the strengths and weaknesses of the Iraqi security forces, the role of incoming U.S. special forces and the spread of ISIL’s influence in the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the situation in Iraq, we turn to two former Army officers who served in that country. Retired Colonel Derek Harvey was an intelligence officer and special adviser to the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus. He’s now a professor of practice at the University of South Florida. And retired Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Ollivant had two tours in Iraq. He was also the director for Iraq on the National Security Council during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He’s now a managing partner in a consulting company which does business in Iraq.

And we welcome you both to the NewsHour.

LT. COL. DOUGLAS OLLIVANT (RET.), U.S. Army: It’s good to be here.

Colonel Harvey, let me begin with you. Just give us your understanding of what the strengths and weaknesses are of the Iraqi army, who’s in it, roughly speaking, and why has it been having so much difficulty?

COL. DEREK HARVEY (RET.), U.S. Army: Well, the current situation, the deterioration began with the problems in Mosul, and the problems in Mosul and Nineveh province, they had poor commanders.

They had a sectarian agenda. It was viewed as Maliki’s militia by most of the Sunni Arabs in the province. And poor training, poor practices — and over the past year, importantly, I think we need to keep in mind that ISIL had a campaign to undermine the strengths of the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police in the northern province.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are the extremists.

COL. DEREK HARVEY: These are the extremists.

And they set the stage for what became this campaign, this offensive that we saw start a couple of weeks ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you add to that?

LT. COL. DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: I think Derek has it more or less right. The simplest explanation is that the Iraqi army just isn’t very good in this particular region.

But, if we look a little closer, there were a lot of Sunni soldiers in these divisions that were in the north. There’s two flavors of why that could go wrong. There’s a conspiratorial version that says they were paid off. I suspect that probably happened at lower levels, but isn’t the big explanation.

But, just at a sociological level, if you are a Sunni member of the Iraqi army and you see members from your extended family or your tribe or from your mosque fighting against you, you are more likely to just decide you should go home and not participate in this conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, but what about what Colonel Harvey said, that ISIL started planting the seeds of this some time ago, as long as a year ago?

LT. COL. DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Well, he’s — he has different information than I do. But that’s not implausible. It’s certainly possible that they have done that. And that would fit in with the idea that they have been buying off the right commanders over time.

COL. DEREK HARVEY: If I could add also the prime minister’s centralization of command-and-control and the management of the operational level of war for the Iraqi army didn’t allow the operational commanders to have the flexibility and agility to respond.

And, in fact, they were, in effect, blind to what was going on once this began to unravel. So the inability to have a command-and-control system, to synchronize a response to the ISIL offensive was a major factor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it sounds like a number of things were going wrong at the same time.

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, right now, as we have reported, Colonel Ollivant, U.S. military aides are just now arriving on the ground. What — who are they? What are their skills? How will they change what’s going on there?

LT. COL. DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Well, they’re out of Special Operations command.

And I suspect — while the details haven’t been released, I suspect we have a combination of Delta Force and SEALs and regular Green Beret types who will give advice. But I think, more importantly — Derek and I were talking earlier — I think we would more call them observers than advisers at this point.

They’re there to essentially gather information for us both about how ISIL is doing on the field. They will be in the brigade headquarters of the Iraqi army.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But on the front lines…

LT. COL. DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Well, no, in the brigade headquarters. That is a little further back, usually in offices, not close to the battle lines, but they will be able to talk to the people who are talking to the people who are fighting ISIL, get a secondhand version of what’s going on at the front lines and I think, even more importantly, look around as at the Iraqi army units that they’re with and determine what their capabilities are and what we can expect from them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so the idea of doing that is what? What does that bring to the U.S. in terms of decision-making?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Well, it brings — for us, it brings information and awareness about what is going on there at this point in time.

But, Judy, my major concern with this is that the Iraqi army and Iraqi police are being augmented by a mobilized Shia militia and they’re being integrated into these commands of the Iraqi army divisions and police brigades. And that is of concern, I think, because behind those Shia militias, Iran’s General Qassem Suleimani is managing and orchestrating this integration.

And he’s the same commander that managed the campaign in Syria against the Free Syrian Army and other Sunni resistance movements there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you see a strong hand by Iran in all of this?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: They are clearly helping coordinate and shape the defense of Baghdad in the region and integrating the Shia militias.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the two sides facing off against each other?

LT. COL. DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: I was last in Baghdad in March.

And you could certainly see this already happening then. Certainly, Iraq, because of this offensive, has been forced to lean more on Iran. I think I’m a little less concerned than Derek is for this immediate crisis. The United States has two national interests, and one is in defeating ISIL and the other is in preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq.

And between us and the Iranians, there’s really no white space on these issues. Now, once we get past this immediate crisis, our interests will diverge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask about Jordan, because we mentioned that now there are troops in Jordan mobilizing on the border. They’re worried about what’s going on inside their country on behalf of ISIS. What do we know — what is known about that?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Well, I think the first thing we have to understand is that ISIL is a multistate problem. It’s in Syria, it’s Iraq, and it is trying to build its capability in Jordan.

And in Jordan, they have recruiting videos out, they have propaganda, and they are saying that Jordan is next, that the Hashemite kingdom is going to fall and that they’re going to liberate the people of Jordan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how does that affect — Colonel Ollivant, how does that affect what’s happening in Iraq? Does that spread ISIL more thinly? What does it mean?

LT. COL. DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Well, regrettably, I think they’re doing so well that they’re probably attracting more recruit than they’re losing in terms of casualties or having to occupy this new territory.

ISIL is a new thing. This is not just a terrorist group now. This is kind of a proto-state. They control territory. They have an army, they have a political form. They’re still figuring it out. It’s all very primitive, mind you, but it’s a real thing.

And even if we could wave a magic wand and fix Iraq tomorrow, they still have designs on Jordan, on Lebanon, on Israel, and eventually on Saudi Arabia and Turkey. We have a real national interest here in countering this threat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But to clarify here at the end, Colonel Harvey, you’re more concerned about the Iran influence on behalf of the Iraqi leadership?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: I am more concerned about ISIL and its effect on the region and its long-term aspirations against the United States, Western interests, and the more stable countries in the region.

The complicating factor for us is the mobilization of the Shia and Iran’s presence there. If we’re going to get engaged, how do those issues get worked out?

JUDY WOODRUFF: All very good questions and reminding us just how complicated this is.

Colonel Harvey, Colonel Ollivant, we thank you both.

LT. COL. DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Thanks very much, Judy.

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Thank you very much.