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Ramadi defeat challenges U.S. narrative of fight against Islamic State

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Joining me now to talk about the battle against the Islamic State is retired Colonel Derek Harvey. He's a former special adviser to the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and now director for the Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict at the University of South Florida. And Vali Nasr, a former State Department senior adviser, he's now dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

    Vali Nasr, how significant is the fall of Ramadi?

    VALI NASR, Former State Department official: I think symbolically, it's very significant.

    After all, Ramadi is an important city in Iraq. It's the capital of Anbar. And it challenges the U.S. narrative that ISIS is being downgraded, it's being dismantled. And I think, psychologically, it boosts their position of the region, it helps their recruitment and it suggests that they are far from on their back heel.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Derek Harvey, the Pentagon spokesman said today not to read too much into this. What do you read into it?

    COL. DEREK HARVEY (RET.), Former Army intelligence officer: Well, I think it clearly shows that the Islamic State is not losing, which means that we're not winning, and we need to rethink our approach, how we're resourcing this effort and our determination to assist the Iraqi security forces and bolster Prime Minister Abadi.

    I think most importantly that Prime Minister Abadi could become weakened and further isolated, which would undermine the major political effort that we have had in play in Iraq. We have invested a lot in him and his opponents are going to use this as another arrow to undermine his political stature in the country.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    There is a political piece here, Vali Nasr, and there is the military piece. How much of this came to pass because of the inherent weakness of the Iraqi military?

  • VALI NASR:

    I think it's mostly a result of the weakness of the Iraqi military. The Iraqi military collapsed when ISIS took Mosul. There was an effort to shore it up, and I think that effort was exaggerated. Largely, a lot of the fighting was done by Shia militias in places like Tikrit.

    And now we again see that the Iraqi security forces are not up to task to resist ISIS. At least they can't control the whole of Iraq. And when they go in one direction, that gives room to ISIS to move into new areas.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    We heard this weekend, Colonel Harvey, about the U.S. victory over a leader of ISIS, which the White House was very anxious to disseminate that information, in order to make the case, the continuing case that there has been some victory here. Do you see that?

  • COL. DEREK HARVEY:

    I really don't.

    You know, taking out a leader who is readily replaceable, I think, in my judgment, is not a major factor in this campaign. You know, we have had these types of takedowns of leaders at mid-level and senior level before and they're replaced over time.

    The most important thing from this action over the weekend against Abu Sayyaf was in fact the intelligence collection, the thumb drives, the computers, the data that can be exploited to go after networks and leadership down the road.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Do you agree with that about Abu Sayyaf?

  • VALI NASR:

    No, I agree. I think ISIS' power in the region comes from its ability to show that it's a viable force, that it can capture territory, that it can stand up to the U.S., and that it's the only, if you will, Sunni force capable of taking on Baghdad and Tehran. And all of this has been reinforced in Ramadi.

    The fact that they lost the leader means that he has been martyred. That's expected in war and I think the fact that they were able to capture Ramadi right after the death of that leader plays to their narrative.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me stay with you, Vali Nasr, for a moment, because I'm also curious about whether you think that the U.S. could be doing more or whether this is something and perhaps to the extent of actually overtly collaborating with Iran.

  • VALI NASR:

    Well, if our goal is to defeat ISIS in the very short run, it cannot be done through Iraqi security forces. Standing up a viable army that can control all the territory in Iraq and be able to fight ISIS is going to take time.

    So if we want to defeat ISIS in the short run, either the U.S. has to do more of the fighting or it has to much more overtly and explicitly collaborate with the Shia militias that are backed by Iran who have proven to be the more effective force fighting ISIS.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Derek Harvey, is that a nonstarter, collaborating even in a subtle fashion with Iran?

  • COL. DEREK HARVEY:

    Well, I think it will mobilize more Sunni Arab resistance, not just those that are key to support ISIS anyway.

    And I think it will put at risk our influence in an independent Iraq down the road. It threatens to make Iraq more of a client state of Tehran if we are not very careful about how Iranian influence with these popular mobilization units and Shia militias is calibrated.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me ask you, sticking with you, Colonel Harvey, how strong is the political support on the ground for ISIS, which makes it maybe a little bit more difficult to take on?

  • COL. DEREK HARVEY:

    I don't think anyone is certain about how strong the political support is.

    What's clear is, there is real frustration and still anger with Baghdad. Keep in mind that Ramadi has been under pressure from ISIS for 16 months, and they have been asking for help. The tribal leaders have been asking for help. The ISF, the Iraqi Security Forces, were asking for reinforcements and support continuously over this time and it wasn't forthcoming from Baghdad.

    That creates animosity toward Baghdad, which is tapped into throughout the Sunni Arab region.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Vali Nasr, we hear about what's happened in Tikrit, what's happened in Ramadi, what's happened in Mosul, what's happened in Kobani, and it feels like a few steps forward and several steps back and we're right where we started.

    Am I wrong in that reading or is there something else that we're doing wrong that means we can never make permanent progress?

  • VALI NASR:

    Well, we cannot maintain permanent progress based on the kind of situation we have on the ground. So, Iraqi security forces cannot defeat ISIS.

    They can gather and push ISIS out of one town and city and ISIS moves somewhere else. Ultimately, what is required is denying the entire territory of Iraq to ISIS and being able to push ISIS out of all the territory that it holds without enabling it to move into another territory.

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