Ash Carter: No Confusion About U.S. Interests In Fight Against ISIS

October 11, 2016
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Ash Carter took on the Secretary of Defense post in February 2015, after the U.S. was already deeply entrenched in the fight against ISIS, or ISIL. As a former professor of international affairs at Harvard University, and a longtime Pentagon official, Carter has spent three decades thinking about global strategy and national security. In his Senate confirmation hearing, he insisted that he was “hopeful and determined” that American forces could “counter the malignant and savage terrorism emanating” from the Middle East and North Africa.

It has not proved easy. In the interview below, Carter discusses the struggles he has faced selling the White House’s war plan to allies around the world, some of whom either do not get along, do not abide by international human rights standards, or do not have the same agenda as the United States. “The Middle East is a confusing place,” he says. “But we’re not confused about what American interests are. So we pursue our American interests with all these parties.”

This is the transcript of a conversation with FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith held on Aug. 31, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

September 2015, the Russians intervene in Syria. Were you surprised?

No, I wasn’t. Because the Russian defense minister had given me a call. But what they did isn’t what they said they were going to do. What they said they were going to do is come in and find ISIL, and help to use their influence to move [Bashar al-Assad] aside and thereby end the civil war in Syria, which has been one of the causes of the whole fertile ground for ISIL. They didn’t do either of those things. [The Russians] have, instead, joined Assad against the opposition, thereby pouring gasoline on the civil war. So I’m disappointed to see what they have done. And that continues to this day. …

So did you call the defense minister back and say, “Hey, what’s up,” you know?

We’ve made it very clear to the Russians … that what they’re doing is not helpful, isn’t congruent with our interests, and is only going to prolong the civil war in Syria. So their effect so far in that conflict has been an unfortunate one.

… We believe it’s very much in their interest to do what they said they were going to do. But what they said and what they’re doing have been two different things.

So they lied to you.

Well, they certainly had a very different interpretation of combatting ISIL … than the facts have since warranted. So they haven’t at all lived up to what they said they were going to do.

How did it affect the war against ISIS?

Well, it hasn’t affected our campaign against ISIL at all. We have conducted that with a coalition that doesn’t include Russia in both Iraq and Syria … the Russians haven’t been part of it, so they haven’t helped, but they haven’t impeded it either.

In December of 2015, President Obama comes to the Pentagon and holds a press conference, and in his comments he says, “Our allies have to do more. Just as our European allies have to do more, our regional partners have to do more.” You left for the Middle East the next day. What was it, specifically, that you wanted the allies to do that they weren’t doing?

Well, first of all, I wanted to show them the campaign plan that we had devised.

A new plan.

It was a new plan. It was one that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Dunford, and I began to develop in October. We had briefed thoroughly to the president, culminating in the meeting in December. And I wanted all of our friends and allies to see that plan and say, “This is what we’re doing. We’re going to mount this campaign, and geographically, in Iraq and Syria, it will result and culminate in the taking of Mosul in Iraq and the taking of Raqqa in Syria.

We’re talking 2015.

 Yes, we are.

So let me interrupt, I’m sorry. But this is  more than a year after the president had declared that we were going to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. So what was the new plan going to do that the old plan wasn’t?

Well, the new plan was a very specific campaign plan that called for the taking of Ramadi, Hit, Rutba — Fallujah, Makhmur and Qayyarah … in Iraq, with an aim to envelop Mosul, using Kurdish forces from the north. All of that plan we have carried out in those nine months. To the point where we’re now —

But why was that only developed in October of 2015? What added urgency had there been to create that sort of new plan?

Well, both Chairman Dunford and I felt that we had opportunities to accelerate and make coherent the campaign. The president approved those, and so we embarked on that. And so the first thing I did with the coalition, and by the way, the defense ministers of the international coalition to combat ISIL had never been convened before.

I brought them together for the first time and I said, “Look, this is the war plan. We’re going to win. When we do win, we’ll remember who was with us. And we want all of you with us. Here are the capabilities that will be required, and here’s a concrete plan. And I need you to do what you can do to contribute.”

So, for example, the Italians are very good at training. They’re doing training. Many of them contributed to the air war — contributed intelligence support. Even those who didn’t have a lot of military capability, I said, “Fine, you be part of the reconstruction of these cities when we take them back.” And so we showed them the plan … and our overall strategic approach, which is to enable capable and motivated local forces. And that’s an important strategic principle.

Hadn’t you been doing that from the first train and equip program, the one that didn’t go so well? I mean, the effort was being made to ally with Syrian Arabs, as well as Kurds both in Syria, and the peshmerga in northern Iraq, as well as rebuilding the Iraqi Security Forces. All that was in place.

Yes, yes.

I’m trying to get what was different here.

Well, what was different in December of 2015 was our specific approach to the war plan — objective by objective. And the general strategic approach of using capable, motivated forces and bringing the awesome military power of the United States to bear in enabling them, but not trying to substitute for them.

Because somebody’s got to run the place after ISIL’s been defeated. We don’t want just a new ISIL after ISIL’s defeated. That’s why we work with local partners, frustrating and difficult as that can be. But we then had a specific war plan, and I took that specific war plan to our coalition partners and showed them how they could fit in and what our expectations were from every country, and how we were looking to ask more of ourselves and take advantage of every opportunity we had. And I wanted them to do the same.

Should I be surprised that it was more than a year into the counter-ISIS effort that we’re coming up with a specific war plan?

Well, I, our history in Iraq is a very long one, so I had to deal with the situation that I found. And what I found was that ISIL was occupying a large part of Iraq and Syria, and we needed a campaign to get rid of it. The first thing I did was decide we needed one overall commander, which we hadn’t had.

And that’s when I appointed General [Sean] MacFarland to be the overall commander of everything — air, special forces, ground forces, training, the whole deal … So I unified command and control, asked him to build that war plan. The chairman and I scrubbed that war plan, approved that, took it to the president, the president approved it, then we took it to our coalition partners and said, “Here’s how you fit in.” And then we have been systematically executing that over the months since.

“… Somebody’s got to run the place after ISIL’s been defeated. We don’t want just a new ISIL after ISIL’s defeated.”

… You alluded to the difficulty you’ve had in getting the sort of buy in from some of the regional partners especially. I want to ask you specifically about Saudi Arabia. What were you asking Saudi Arabia to do? They were being distracted by Yemen. But what were you in December, January of 2016, asking?

Well, we talked about a number of things with the Saudis … they have contributed, just on the ground, special forces elements, which have worked with ours, very small numbers of those, but that’s the way special forces operate —

Not combat troops.

No, these are ones that go in and provide training liaison with local forces … They’ve made a big contribution in the air war. But I’ll tell you where Saudi Arabia can make a great contribution — and where we talk with them all the time, and I think they will — one is towards the reconstruction and stabilization. After these cities have been taken, there’s a lot of destruction in these cities. And the Saudis can help to rebuild that. And another place where the Saudis — now I’m talking about contributions that they can uniquely make. Because in the case of reconstruction, they would be doing that to people who are friendly to them — religiously similar to them–

Sunni Arabs.

Yes. And the other way that they can have a unique role, and I think are trying to play that increasingly, is because of the fact that they’re the country in which the holy mosques are located, and therefore the geographic center of Islam. And this is a terrorist movement that claims to be associated with the religion of Islam. It’s important that they continue to combat that ideology. They’ve set up their own coalition of Muslim countries for that purpose, and we think that’s very constructive as well.

Really?

Yes.

That coalition, they announced it just hours after the president had asked them to do more. It seemed odd to a lot of observers. It seemed like the Saudis were saying, “You know, we’re going to set our own agenda. We’re going to decide which wars we’re going to fight.” And they seemed much more concerned about Iran than they did seem about ISIS.

Well, there’s no question that they’re very concerned about Iran, and part of their interest always there is to make sure that Iran doesn’t use the ISIL phenomenon to gain further influence in the gulf. That’s an interest, by the way, we share with Saudi Arabia.

But we have tried to talk to them, and I’ve talked to them very directly [and] said, “This is an idea you had, yes. It was one that developed very quickly. But I think we can turn it into something that can be very constructive by working with them,” so our approach is to try to work with them. And that —

Wasn’t that saber rattling? I mean, the Northern Thunder operation, which was that massive show of force they did, wasn’t that more about Iran than it was about ISIS?

Well as I said, the Saudis are concerned about Iran, but they also have a concern about ISIL. And we’re trying to use their power and influence in ways that are consistent with our interests. And that’s the way we do things in the Middle East. The Middle East is a confusing place.

But we’re not confused about what American interests are. So we pursue our American interests with all of these parties. And yet do they have somewhat different interests from us? Different perspectives? They all do. But we know what our interests are, and we know what our power is.

You’ve also had a reluctant partner in Turkey at various junctures along the way. You’ve had trouble getting Turkey to have common cause. It began in Kobani, where they sat idle on the other side of the border and didn’t want to participate in pushing ISIS back out of Kobani. And it persists today. They’re upset that you have decided to invest, fund, arm the Y.P.G. [People’s Protection Units] forces in northern Syria, and you have responded by saying, “This is a different group than the P.K.K. [Kurdistan Workers’ Party].” They don’t buy it. Why have you failed to make the case to them?

Well, first of all, let me start with — Turkey’s a NATO ally. They do lots of things with us. They are, for example, letting us use bases from which we conduct a great part of the airborne campaign.

And sometimes they’ve closed that base —

For brief periods, yes. But by and large, it’s been open, and we fly in an unimpeded way. And we have [a] good allied relationship with them in many, many ways. They share a border with Iraq and Syria. And it took them a long time to begin to get control over that border, you’re absolutely right. But they’ve done a lot recently in that regard, and —

You carried that message then after the president spoke —

Absolutely.

“You got to close that border.” You’ve made progress there?

Absolutely. Yes, and I think they have made progress. We’re not completely satisfied with it, because it’s a very difficult kind of border to control. But to get to your other point — one of the groups that we support in fighting ISIL in Syria is a group that strengthens a Syrian/Kurdish element, which absolutely has been politically affiliated with the group that conducts terrorist operations in Turkey.

We’re very clear about that. We haven’t tried to hide the fact that we know that from the Turks. But we have said, “Even as we work with you, Turkey, our close ally to defeat ISIL, we will work with this group to defeat ISIL, subject to some rules. And one of those rules is we’re not going to help them in any way to do things that will obstruct your protection of your own border or your own security.”

And they have been a gateway to us to northern Syria, mostly to the Arab community in northern Syria. And we wanted to get to that Arab community and establish a relationship, because that’s how we’re going to get to Raqqa. It’s those Syrian Arabs who are going to go to Raqqa with our help, and throw ISIL out of Raqqa, which, is what ISIL claims [as] its capital, so-called capital [of its] so-called caliphate.

So we’re going to get them out of Raqqa. And the way we’re going to do that is with these Syrian Arabs. And they have worked with those Kurds. So we are very clear to both parties to this, our good allies the Turks, and the Syrian Y.P.G. Kurds that are fighting ISIL, that we have our interests. That we do not take sides — the one with the other. We’re going to keep them separated on the battlefield.

That’s been a challenge.

It has. …

Let’s talk about Iraq. The sectarianism persists. You talk about needing to work with other people. There, we have fought shoulder to shoulder — or next to or allied with, perhaps informally — with Iranian-backed Shia militias.

We do not enable Shia-backed militia at all. So they — no–

You try not to.

No… we only support and enable forces that are subordinate to Prime Minister [Haider al-Abadi]. This is fundamental, because the hell of Iraq has been sectarian violence. And so —

It’s what gave rise to ISIS in the first place —

Yes, and our —

But —

So our approach has been to back Abadi’s government, realizing that that’s decentralized. But we only do things that are by and through the government of Iraq. And that’s the very simple principle, that in order to have a defeat that sticks, we can’t fuel sectarianism.

I recognize that you have a very difficult job. The fact is that I was just in Tikrit, for example. The town is controlled by Shia militia today. You say you don’t want to fight in order to enable the Shia militia, but it’s the Shia militia that control the checkpoints in and around that town and are right down in the center of the town.

Well, this is a difficulty that exists in southern Iraq, and one that we’re going to have to continue to support Abadi in countering. And that is the effect of Shia sectarian militias not under his control having sway there.

Now, we do not support them in any way. We support Abadi, and not them. However, you’re absolutely right, there are Shia militia in Iraq, including some supported by Iran. We don’t support them at all, and we support instead Abadi. But is there sectarian tension there? Yes. Does Abadi … run everywhere in the country? No. But —

He doesn’t have the power, does he, to resist the Iranian —

No, he has a lot of power, and we intend … to support what he says he supports, and I believe he supports, and his action supports, a decentralized, multi-sectarian, single state of Iraq. That’s as good as it’s going to get in Iraq.

And he’s genuine about that. And we support that. But he doesn’t control each and every corner. But we don’t support any of those people who are not subservient to him. And by the way, the forces that have won on the battlefield with our help in Ramadi, and Heet, in Rutba, in Makmur, in Qayyarah, in Fallujah, the forces that have done the fighting and win are the forces that we have trained, we have funded, we have enabled, and that work for Abadi. The Shia —

But the Iranians have also trained, and the Iranians have backed, and General Qasem Soleimani has been on the ground in Fallujah. He’s a man responsible for the deaths of many Americans —

And you’re absolutely right, and we don’t like that. But the reality is that his forces and [Popular Mobilization Forces] have not been the ones that have been victorious in the battlefield. And I think the Iraqi people —

They’ve been inside Fallujah. During the battle for Fallujah, those forces were in there. You denied them air support, perhaps, but they were in there, fighting.

Again, the forces that have taken the cities and the population knows have taken those cities are the forces of Iraq. And that’s a good thing. It’s not a good thing that there are these militias, including those influenced by Iran, and I have no question about —

And some of them have committed sectarian killings, retribution —

… Abadi, to his credit, by the way, has, whenever any misconduct of that kind has been claimed, especially by his own forces, to his credit, has launched an investigation on them, which is a real kind of behavior to see by a leader like that.

But his forces, particularly his counterterrorism forces, but also the Iraqi army and the federal police, they are the ones who have borne the brunt of the fighting, and had the lion’s share of the victories in the fight against ISIL in Iraq.

“… In order to have a defeat that sticks, we can’t fuel sectarianism.”

I sat down with Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, the head of the Badr militia. And when I raised the question of the abuses that had taken place — and many people point to the Badr as one of the groups that committed retribution [killings], torture, abuse of Sunnis, in these Sunni areas — he simply said, “Stuff happens. This is war, there’s abuse.”

Well, that sounds like the kind of thing he would say. But that just proves my point, which is that the militias, the Shia militias are not under the control of anybody, still lesser, they serve even the interests of the government of Iraq or ultimately of a multi-sectarian approach to Iraq. They’re sectarian militias that are out of control. And if his remarks to you were admitting that, that’s pretty much the way we see it too.

They insist they will be involved in the retaking of Mosul.

Well, you know, they said they’re involved in everything. But they don’t tend to be there when it comes time to do the tough fighting. That’s been done by the Iraq —

Will the Kurds, will the peshmerga be involved in —

Yes, they will. They will be involved in the envelopment of Mosul. And this is a little bit like the Syrian Kurds and the Turkish government. We are with the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Kurds. And I personally had these conversations with Prime Minister Abadi and President [of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud] Barzani.

We have a common plan. We divide up the battle space, we support both forces, forces that are part of the peshmerga, the Kurdish peshmerga, and the Iraqi Army and counterterrorism Forces, in the envelopment of Mosul. And we have an agreed plan to envelop and then collapse ISIL’s control over Mosul. And they both know that neither of them is the right one to have their forces occupy and govern Mosul after that.

Because neither the Iraqi Army Forces, most of them, nor the peshmerga, are from Mosul. The people of Mosul are going to have to govern Mosul. This is true of all of the cities there, and giving them back to the people, first and foremost, they’ll be part of the  state of Iraq. But they’ve got to govern themselves. And it’s very important that victory be conducted in a way that isn’t conducive to further sectarianism. Because we know what lies down that road.

This sounds like a very difficult task. It’s one thing to move into Mosul and plant a flag of one kind or another, but to actually get Iraqis who are suffering from sectarian revenge killings in the battles we’ve seen to lay down and come together and reconcile.

It’s difficult, but it’s not something we’re not capable of doing. And it’s something we have to do. Because we have to defeat —

But that’s not really the military’s role, is it? I mean, it’s not really something —

No, it’s not purely, it’s not —

I’ve heard the White House say many times that we can’t really do that for them.

No, well you’re right, it’s not a purely military role, and it can’t be an American role. We can’t run Mosul for the people of Mosul. The people of Mosul have to do that. And you’re right, we can enable the defeat of ISIL, but when it comes to stabilization and reconstruction of those cities. That’s where the international economic and humanitarian agencies, United Nations and so forth have to come in.

That’s where, as I said, the Saudis can be uniquely helpful. The United States will be helpful in that regard as well. But we have really unique and distinct capabilities in the military area, which we’re exercising. And we will win.

That, to a lot of people, will sound like nation building. I’m not saying that it’s something that you don’t need to do, but to a lot of people they’ll say, “Well, that’s nation building. We’ve tried that, it didn’t work.”

Well, I think that what we have, on the basis of 15 years of war, is a tremendous amount of experience in what is possible and what isn’t possible. And we know that it’s important, and this is why we’re taking the strategic approach we are, to use capable, motivated, local people, and take the time and the energy that is required to train them and work through them, in order to make sure that the defeat of extremism sticks.

We’ve learned that. And so yes, we’ve learned how difficult it is. On the other hand, we have a lot of experience in doing this. And we have to do this to protect ourselves. We don’t have to make Iraq and Syria perfect. We don’t have to put order in the Middle East. We understand it’s a complicated place. But we’re clear about what our interests are. We need to protect our people. And that includes against ISIL. That we can do. That’s what we will do, we must do, we are going do. No question about it.

How soon will Mosul be taken?

As soon as possible … Mosul’s large, very large. But I have no question that we’ll collapse, ultimately collapse, ISIL’s control of Mosul. This is a war, so I’m very careful to under promise and over deliver. And I won’t give a date on that, but we certainly have a date for the movement of the forces that will envelop Mosul, and that’s in the coming months. And we’ve been exercising that, executing that plan, since, as I told you, last fall, step by step, and on the schedule that we laid out then. And I expect that we’ll be able to keep to that schedule over the next couple months.

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