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Does the current U.S. military intervention underestimate the Islamic State?

August 8, 2014 at 6:20 PM EST
Is the U.S. doing enough to defeat the militants of the Islamic State group and relieve the humanitarian crisis in Iraq? Hari Sreenivasan gets two views from Feisal Istrabadi of Indiana University and retired Army Col. Derek Harvey.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And Hari Sreenivasan has more on the Iraq story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For reaction to the latest developments in Iraq and the U.S. response, we get two views.

Feisal Istrabadi was Iraq’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2007. He’s now a professor of international law and diplomacy at Indiana University. And 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 Florida — South Florida.

So, Mr. Istrabadi, let me start with you. Do you agree with the administration’s position about military intervention?

FEISAL ISTRABADI, Indiana University: I do.

I think that in the first instance the critical humanitarian crisis, in which we see the possibility of the Yazidis, an ancient religion who have been in Iraq since before the Christian era, being wiped out, indeed, a genocide being committed against them, along with the atrocities being committed against the Christians of Iraq, as well as other groups, including the Shia and Sunni of Northern Iraq, I think it is appropriate for the United States to come in, in this humanitarian intervention.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what about the military intervention?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I take it that part of the humanitarian intervention has been a military one, which is to strike at targets of ISIS.

And I absolutely agree that this was an appropriate time for them to relieve the potential humanitarian catastrophe, including through armed force. It’s critical that Irbil not fall to ISIS. And as I think that the hints we’re getting, both from President Obama’s speech yesterday and from the interview you just had, that if the Iraqis are able to form an inclusive government, there will be more support from the United States in coordinating a holistic approach to the defeat of ISIS, which is in the United States’ national interest, as it is in the Iraqi and regional interest.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Colonel Derek Harvey, is this military intervention as part of a humanitarian one going to be enough?

COL. DEREK HARVEY (RET.), U.S. Army: It is frankly not enough at this point in time.

And I hope that the president and our military president will be enabled, given the authorization to do more. The humanitarian efforts in Northern Iraq, providing relief at this point in time, do not address providing an escape corridor to move those people to security and where they can get the proper relief and treatment.

That will take troops on the ground. And that will take, in all likelihood, Peshmerga. But the Peshmerga need resupply. They need ammunition. They need weapons. And they need some mobility. That’s what they need in order to facilitate that effort.

The other strikes are pinpricks and they’re limited to the Irbil area. What is needed to shift the momentum here is a broader campaign hitting deeper and broader ISIS targets, to eliminate their mobility and their freedom of action to strike where they want. Right now, they have the initiative along the whole green line between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq and to the south along the Euphrates River and in the area around Baghdad.

That initiative needs to be taken away from them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Istrabadi, what about that, that there are going to have to be boots on the ground? It might be Peshmerga ones?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, let’s — I don’t think American boots on the ground are likely.

I think that the president’s been clear on that, and I’m not certain that the American public would tolerate it. So, yes, I think that there does need to be coordination between the Peshmerga and other Iraqi forces.

I want to say very quickly that we should remember that the Peshmerga are, in fact, also Iraqi forces. They’re provided for in the Iraqi constitution. So there needs to be greater cooperation between the forces under the command of Irbil and the command of Baghdad.

That is something that is also high on the American agenda. There has been talk of regional cooperation as well. Turkey cannot be sanguine at these developments. Other countries in the region cannot be sanguine at these developments.

So, I agree, but I think we’re off to a start at least. I think the policy is correct that humanitarian relief, first, that’s a critical need, stopping the advance of ISIS. Iraqi forces in the south at least have fought ISIS to a standstill at Baiji. And so I think there’s reason to be optimistic or sanguine that there will be a regrouping of all Iraqi force.

If we can get a government that’s inclusive and that reaches out to all Iraqis, then I think we have reason, with this sort of renewed initiative of the United States, to believe that we can put an end to this threat to Iraq.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Colonel Harvey, has the administration underestimated the strength of the Islamic State group? They have been on a tear recently, even taking control of a dam. How tactically strong are they?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: I think they are very capable from the bottom up.

They have got good leadership, sophisticated leadership, as spokesmen from the State Department have commented already. They have weapons, resources. They have money and they’re getting the recruits. But we have to keep in mind, this is not just an Iraqi problem.

It is in Syria. It is in northern Lebanon, where atrocities have been taking place in northern Lebanon and ISIS has expanded the fight there. And they have intentions toward Kuwait as well as Jordan. We have to keep in mind that they also have intentions to strike the American homeland in Western Europe. And we shouldn’t be sanguine about this. And we should not underestimate their capability or their desire to take the leadership role away from al-Qaida and take the lead in this broader movement of international jihadism.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Mr. Istrabadi, I want to ask, this doesn’t happen in a political vacuum. How connected are the actions of the U.S. administration now in the north to what’s happening in Baghdad and the political process?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, again, I think that what the president was hinting at yesterday is that if we can get an inclusive and government of national unity, I think of it as a government of national salvation.

If we can get a prime minister who understands the need for reconciliation, who understands the need to reach out to all Iraqis of all ethnicities and all confessions, and if we can agree on an agenda for going forward, I think that there will be greater participation in the United States, greater coordination with the Iraqi forces.

But in the first instance, I agree with the administration’s assessment, and I think this was the experience that General Petraeus had in 2007 and 2008. There has to be an underlying political agreement that all parties agree to. Then we isolate the bad actors, the malevolent actors from those actors with whom we can have a political negotiation. That’s the way forward.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Colonel Harvey, I wanted to ask briefly, what is the likelihood of success on the humanitarian side of these airdrops?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Well, it provides temporary relief.

But unless you do other things to limit the ISIS capability in the area and develop a land bridge, it doesn’t look good for the Yazidis who are trapped on that mountain.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Feisal Istrabadi and Colonel Derek Harvey, thanks so much for your time.

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Thank you very much.

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Thank you.