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U.S. national security official stresses Iraq political solution, not boots on the ground

August 8, 2014 at 6:13 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: To find out more on the Obama administration’s decision to launch airstrikes inside Iraq and airdrops of humanitarian aid, I spoke to White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes a short time ago.

Ben Rhodes, thank you for joining us.

The Islamic State fighters are saying that the U.S. airstrikes are not hurting them at all, that they’re going to keep going. How much damage are the strikes doing?

BEN RHODES, Deputy National Security Adviser: Well, look, we wouldn’t expect the ISIL fighters to say anything different.

The fact of matter is, what our strikes are doing are aiming to achieve a very specific objective around Irbil, which is to stop any advance of ISIL in a way that threatens Irbil. And we believe we are having that impact.

We have been able to hit ISIL targets that have been shelling the Peshmerga, that have been trying to advance toward the city. And what we want to do is create a periphery where they cannot get into Irbil and threaten our people and facilities or the security of the city more broadly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the Yazidi minority group, we know, is stranded. We have been reporting on them. Their situation only seems to grow even worse, more life-threatening. There was a report today that several hundred Yazidi women have been taken hostage by ISIL.

How far does the administration’s commitment go?

BEN RHODES: Well, we have been very disturbed by these reports for a period of days. They included executions of Yazidis at the base of this mountain. They did include taking some of these Yazidi women and essentially enslaving them, forcing them to convert or into marriage, and horrifying conditions on this mountain.

We were able to do an airdrop last night of food and water. There’s clearly going to be need to be more. So, we’re ready and have resources prepositioned to continue those humanitarian airdrops to reach that population on that mountain.

At the same time, we need to work to find a way to get the Yazidis into a safe space where they can receive more sustainable international support to solve this humanitarian crisis. We’re committed to saving as many lives as we can and preventing what would be an act of genocide, an effort to wipe out the Yazidi population.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, for both the Yazidis and the population in Irbil, again, how far does the administration’s commitment go? Will the U.S. be there no matter what?

BEN RHODES: Well, there are limits that the president has placed on the mission. For instance, we’re not putting American boots on the ground to be engaged in combat in Iraq again.

But we do believe that we can achieve objectives from the air. So, around Irbil, we can again create a periphery where we’re hitting any ISIL targets that move toward a city. That creates a protection zone for Irbil and our people there.

And on that mountain, we can do humanitarian aid drops, and we can also hit any ISIL targets if we see people threatening that mountain. That should create some space where we can come up with a solution to provide a safe passage and safe space for the Yazidi people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did the administration underestimate the Islamic State fighters?

BEN RHODES: Well, I think, Judy, what happened is, they have posed a significant threat for years. They used to be al-Qaida in Iraq, so they have been around.

I think what happened though is that they rapidly ramped up their capacity for two reasons. One is they had room to operate in Syria because of the conflict there. So, they became a group that could operate across essentially a border that was evaporating between Iraq and Syria.

But, two — and this is very important — as they made advances, they were able to get stocks of weapons. And so they were able to get heavier weapons. That made them more capable. And that’s what fed some of these lightning strikes that we have seen from them in the last several days, where they have pushed back the Peshmerga forces.

But we do believe that, with our airpower, the Peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces have some space to regroup, and that they can take the fight to ISIL, that they do not have the capacity to withstand an effective security force that is taking the fight to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I’m sure you know some of your critics, especially coming from the right, the Republican Party, are saying, yes, it’s appropriate what the administration is doing, but they don’t see a strategy, that just talking about humanitarian aid, when you have a determined enemy like Islamic State is not going to be enough, that the administration needs to do — to plan to do much more.

BEN RHODES: Well, here’s the strategy. It’s quite simple.

We have advisers on the ground. We are providing training and equipment for the Iraqi security forces and for the Kurdish forces. We are carrying out objectives around protecting Irbil our people there, and again solving this humanitarian crisis.

But the long-term solution is political. The Iraqis are in a government formation process. They’re nearing completion of that. They put together an inclusive government, that gives more buy-in from the different communities inside of Iraq, so that the Sunnis see the government in Baghdad as a partner and not as an adversary.

That also opens up space for us to work with other countries in the region to provide more support to the Iraqi government. And then we squeeze ISIL with the Iraqi forces in the lead and the Kurdish forces coming from the north and with support from the region.

That’s the strategy that is going to work. Frankly, a lot of our critics seem to think that there are U.S. military solutions that we can impose onto Iraq. I think the lesson of the last decade is the U.S. military can’t impose a political outcome on Iraq. Only Iraqis can do that and that’s what we’re pressing them to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You sound confident that this strategy is going to work. What gives you that confidence?

BEN RHODES: Well, I think, frankly, while I wouldn’t want to predict with 100 percent certainty what an outcome is going to be in Iraq, there has been a wakeup call, a shock to the system in Iraq.

Iraq’s leaders had gotten complacent. They had fallen back into sectarian divides. But ISIL’s advances I think did provide a wakeup call and you have seen in the government formation process progress. A new Kurdish president nominated, a new Sunni speaker, now discussions around a prime minister.

So we see that coming together. And again I think as people regroup, the threat of ISIL is something that can unite Iraqis. That doesn’t mean we’re going to have a perfect outcome inside of a country with so many divisions and so much difficult history, but it does mean that we can begin to push back on the gains that ISIL has made in the last several weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can guarantee the critics on the other side who worry that this is a slippery slope?

BEN RHODES: Well, look, we have set very clear and limited objectives for the military part of the United States’ commitment, protecting our people in Iraq which, we would do anywhere in the world, and really solving a unique humanitarian crisis with potentially tens of thousands of people stranded on this mountain.

That’s our military mission and those are the strikes the president authorized. At the same time, we’re seeking to affect things through a political outcome, through assistance, through security force training and equipment training. That’s the long-term play.

And I think what we can say that people who are concerned about a slippery slope, we’re not putting U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq. We had 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq when he took office. We removed all of those troops. Now we have just a small advisory presence. Again, we’re not going to get back into the type of heavy U.S. footprint that we have had in Iraq over the last decade.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser to the president, we thank you.

BEN RHODES: Thank you very much.