Jack Keane: Leaving Iraq Was an “Absolute Strategic Failure”


July 29, 2014

Gen. Jack Keane is a retired four-star general who served in the U.S. Army for nearly four decades. After serving as the army’s vice chief of staff from 1999 to 2004, Keane advised the Bush administration during the Iraq war. He is currently chairman of the Institute for the Study of War. He spoke to FRONTLINE about the strategy behind the surge, which he was instrumental in developing, and missteps that have led to the current chaos in Iraq. This is an edited transcript of that conversation, conducted on July 8, 2014.

Let’s start back with 2006, and the debate that was growing that a surge might be the general direction to go. The necessity of the surge was starting to be talked about. Explain why that happened. …

In 2005, in Iraq, the constitution was written. A new government was elected. That government was trying to take office in 2006.

The Al Qaeda and the Sunni tribal leadership, who were working together at that time, recognized the threat of a democratic, duly elected government to their political objectives, and as such, they wanted to undermine this government and break down any relationship that it would have to its people. They chose the Samarra mosque as the vehicle to achieve that end, and death squads on the streets in Baghdad killing Shia.

What their motivation was is to get the Shia militia — who had historically, the last three years except for one or two exceptions, been on defense — and get them out and come on offense. And they knew that they would attack Sunni people, and as a result of that, this would become a sectarian clash, a sectarian war, and the government would never be able to take hold as something that the people had confidence in.

They largely accomplished that objective. In 2006, in Baghdad, it was a bloodbath, with hundreds of people being killed every month and tens and scores of them every single week. The United States military, assisted by the Iraqi security forces, conducted two operations to push this back: Together Forward I and Together Forward II, the latter being in the late summer, early fall. As a result of that, the government fractured. It was heading toward a failed state.

There was absolute bedlam. People were not receiving services. They were not going to school. They were just going to market to try to get the bare minimums of life. And the entire stability of Iraq was clearly in jeopardy, and the United States was about to suffer humiliating defeat.

So how does this realign, adjust the debate that is going on in Washington? …

The national security leadership team is represented by Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld in the Pentagon, and also in the field that is Gen. [George W.] Casey and Gen. [John] Abizaid. What they were talking about did not sync with what was taking place on the ground.

As late as August 2006, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, they were talking that the strategy was indeed succeeding. And I can remember the senators were almost coming across the table, figuratively, at them, because they saw the facts, and they knew the facts, and it didn’t square with what they were being told.

That motivated me to get involved, because I thought for sure they were not capable of changing the strategy, and we were going to head toward a terrible defeat. So in my own mind, I devised what was wrong, why was the current strategy failing, what did we need to do to fix it?

I shopped that around with [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger, [former Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz, [former Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich [R-Ga]. I eventually briefed Secretary Rumsfeld on it, Gen. [Peter] Pace, and eventually the president of the United States.

What happens, then, as this is debated? You’ve got an election that takes place in November. Rumsfeld is out soon after. What’s happening? How are the stars aligning? …

In Washington, D.C., in 2006, Democrats had long since given up on the war in Iraq in terms of any tangible political support for it. The new factor was the Republicans were beginning to give up as well, and they were truly challenging the strategy and the lack of success.

I believe for a long time protracted wars test the will of any democracy to be sure, and people will underwrite a protracted war if they see some progress. But if they don’t see progress and it appears to be futile and useless, then that political support begins to evaporate rather quickly. That is what was taking place in 2006. …

Why does Rumsfeld have to go?

Rumsfeld has to go because one, he would not admit the strategy was failing, and two, he obviously wasn’t going to put in place something else to replace it. I think he was an inevitable casualty of the lack of political support for the president’s strategy.

And Casey’s light-footed strategy, how quickly had that dissolved? But yet why was he still fighting for it?

I can’t explain why Generals Casey and Abizaid were still arguing for a strategy that so obviously had been failing for a year to a year and a half. The casualties were increasing year over year, and the situation was so dramatic.

I just think they were so emotionally and psychologically tied to that strategy and the campaign plank that supported it that they were not capable of seeing the compelling facts that were arguing against that strategy.

Gen. [David] Petraeus takes over for Casey. Describe Gen. Petraeus. Here’s a guy who’s not your orthodox general in a lot of ways. He’s not liked by some in the military, and yet he’s given this important role at an amazingly important turning point for the war, for the United States, for Iraq. Who is he, and why does it end up that he’s the one that’s chosen to go over there?

I have a close association with Gen. Petraeus. … What you get in Dave Petraeus is a very unique officer, a combination of intelligence, extraordinary depth of knowledge and understanding. And you couple that with his tactical savviness [sic] and his strategic sense of what is taking place and the depth that he has strategically. That’s very unusual for an officer to have such a grasp as an infantry leader and tactician who also thinks so favorably strategically. And you bring those things together, and that is a unique officer. …

Was there some resistance against him, though, in the beginning?

I don’t think so. … He had done three tours in Iraq, and clearly he had knowledge of the people, and he also understood counterinsurgency. He had just spent a year-plus of his time helping to write counterinsurgency doctrine for the Army and the Marine Corps, along with Jim Mattis from the Marine Corps.

So he clearly understood what the challenges were in Iraq, but more importantly, he understood what the solution was.

January through June [it] wasn’t going that well. … Define those early days in the surge when there was angst in Washington that it might not go in the direction that they were hoping for.

We had a plan. It was going to take us six to seven months to get the surge troops in, based on the Army’s fourth-generation model.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think of what we did in World War II, when we deployed multiple divisions in that time frame. But that’s the system that we had at the time, frustrating for anybody that was looking at it.

But certainly no one expected that you could get success in 30, 60, 90, 120 days. I was there a lot during that time frame. I saw it. … I was down there looking at it myself, company commanders and platoon leaders, and I saw the anecdotal evidence of the change in behavior on the population.

As soon as they saw our troops staying there, sleeping there, patrolling day and night, protecting their children, protecting their way of life, and then getting hurt doing it, they invested in our troops. And that is the psychology of counterinsurgency, to protect the population.

They began to tell our troops where the arms are stored, where the ammunition is stored, who are the bad guys when they try to come back in. I saw that proof of principle immediately on my visit in February. And then that began to enlarge as we put more forces in.

In some neighborhoods, it took us months to clear out the Al Qaeda and get that kind of trust. In other neighborhoods, where they were not as infested, our troops were able to earn their trust a lot more rapidly.

That insurgency began to turn dramatically by the fall of 2007. We did not get all the troops in there until July. That is one of the most rapid turnarounds in counterinsurgency warfare that I’m aware of.

How does it evolve into this working with Sunnis, working with Awakening Councils and such? How does that transition happen, the importance of that part of the strategy?

Col. Sean MacFarland came out of Tal Afar, where counterinsurgency principles were put in play by now-Gen. H. R. McMaster.

[It took] sheer force of personality on the part of McMaster to employ it, because he was not told to do it. MacFarland was moved from Tal Afar to Anbar Province and to Ramadi. He began to employ the same. Sheiks came to see him and talk to him: “Maybe we can work together.”

His brigade was protecting the population for the first time ever in Anbar Province, as opposed to just chasing down bad guys. As a result of that, they were fed up with Al Qaeda, as is well documented now.

They reached out to MacFarland, and that began the Sunni so-called Awakening movement. That began actually in 2006, not very noticeable to anybody because of the hell that Baghdad was going through.

Petraeus comes on the scene in 2007, in February. He sees what is beginning to take place, and intellectually he knows immediately that this can work just about anyplace that Sunnis are. He brings all the commanders in with Gen. [Raymond] Odierno, and they go through an explanation, what this is and what the opportunity is for all of us.

That was promulgated all the way down to company commanders, who understood that where there were Sunni tribes who were assisting and supporting the insurgency, there was potential to reach out to them at your level and try to bring them into the fold. And then you use other examples of what is taking place in other provinces in Iraq.

So the emphasis that Generals Petraeus and Odierno placed on it helped to speed that transformation in other provinces and also, initially, throughout Anbar Province.

… Of course the huge problem is the sectarian divide in this part of the world and in Iraq. How much does this make the Sunnis feel that they are being reintegrated into the political system? Is this only something that is working in these locations, or is it the hope, is it the reality, that in fact what it is doing is it’s reintegrating the Sunnis into a society which is now run by the Shia?

Everybody wants to talk about sectarian conflicts of the war in Iraq, but the fact of the matter is, Sunnis have lived with Shias in harmony more in the confines of Iraq, in that land, than they have been in conflict. That’s an historical fact.

But nonetheless, I think President [George W.] Bush’s decision to commit and escalate our forces and change the strategy was significant.

I remember speaking to a sheik who came back into the political system in late 2008, laid down his arms. His troops became part of the Sons of Iraq, the so-called Sunni Awakening.

“As soon as they saw our troops staying there, sleeping there, patrolling day and night, protecting their children, protecting their way of life, and then getting hurt doing it, they invested in our troops.”

I said, “What made you come back into the political system?” Quick answer. He said: “When Bush occupied Baghdad, I knew we couldn’t win. I’m trying to achieve my political objectives while you Americans still have some influence over this government.” End of message. I said that was a mouthful in terms of what truly was happening in that country.

The Sunnis were attempting to get back what they had lost, driven by Saddam Hussein’s leaders to begin with. The Al Qaeda fell in on that, took advantage of that, and catapulted that movement much more than expected.

In the end, that was not a healthy marriage. Sunni tribal leaders and Al Qaeda are absolutely diametrically opposed to what they want to achieve in their lifetime and what they want to achieve for their children, and it was bound to come apart. And it did come apart. It was Bush’s decision that helped to catapult that separation.

… How hard was it to convince President Bush that this was the right direction to go?

President Bush, who I do not know well — I had briefed him a couple of times prior — I think knew that something fundamentally was wrong in Iraq and some kind of change was necessary. What they didn’t know is what to do about it.

In other words, there were advocates for more troops. The fact of the matter is, if you gave more troops to Generals Casey and Abizaid and they execute the same strategy, we still fail. The fact of the matter is we had to change strategy.

And if I did anything, it was to help operationalize that change in strategy so they could understand what it is and how you would employ something like that, and how it would make sense, and how different it is from what we had previously been doing.

So I think once he understood that, socialized that with his own staff and got feedback — “Does this make sense?” — I think his proclivity for change was there. He just didn’t know for sure what to change to. And thankfully he didn’t just increase the troops. He changed the strategy, which required an increase of troops.

The other thing that the government does at that point is back [Nouri al-] Maliki. … Give me your overview of this guy: who he was, who we viewed him to be at that point, and how cooperative he was.

We have to remember that in this system that the Iraqis were employing, a lot of their leaders who were talented had left Iraq. Maliki was one of the ones who was available, and he was not first, second, or third choice if I remember correctly when they settled on a new government.

So Maliki came out of that system as something the Shias, the Sunnis and the Kurds, someone who they could live with.

So he’s politically weak in terms of experience to be sure, but that probably would be true of most leaders taking over in Iraq given Saddam Hussein’s rule for 35 years.

I think also he expresses a viewpoint that many Shias expressed, and that is, after 35 years of repression, they were very frustrated with Sunnis. And the art of compromise was not something that was in their lexicon. Actually, “revenge” was a word, and the expression of that kind of emotion would be something you’d hear more likely.

So I always thought of Maliki as a nefarious character, to be frank, who needed to be influenced and sometimes guided and directed.

I don’t believe this is too dissimilar from what we experienced in post conflicts in other wars in Germany, in Japan and South Korea, in the Balkans and also in the Philippines, where we stayed and kept our forces there to have influence over a political system that was attempting to grow and develop into something that was real.

When you were working with Maliki and you’re across the table from him, did you ever look him in the eyes and wonder, what happens when the Americans are gone? … Are we going to have problems with this [guy] later on?

I always looked at Maliki as the beginning of multigenerations of leaders in Iraq, just as we started out in South Korea with actually no democracy but a dictatorship. So I thought he was the beginning.

What I was encouraged by the Maliki government is, when we sat down to do the Status of Forces Agreement [SOFA], they did not want to talk about it. What they wanted to talk about was a strategic and enduring relationship with the United States that was not just military, but it was social, economic, educational, scientific, open visa programs, a relationship with a sovereign state similar to any other state that was our ally in the region and also in Europe.

And they refused to get back on the page and talk about the status of forces until we, they agreed on the strategic partnership relationship for the long term. I knew then that they were serious not only about the relationship but also about status of forces and troops staying in Iraq because of their emphasis on that. I was encouraged by that.

I also knew that this would be very difficult moving forward. But the strategic relationship that I believe we were committed to at the time, President Bush signed that document that that would be an enduring relationship that transcends some of the political difficulties we would have.

What does Obama inherit when he comes to power? …

By the end of 2008, clearly the Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgency had been relatively stabilized. And in the Al Qaeda’s mind, they were defeated. They actually said that in many of their transmissions that we were able to pick up.

And the Shia militia — largely those trained by the Iranians and also in Sadr City — had been defeated. Thus there was a transition of government between Bush and Obama.

I think what happened almost immediately that indicated major political change was about to take place is the new ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, told Gen. Odierno when he took office after Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker left in 2009, he told them that Iraq is going to be treated as a sovereign state. The example he used was like France.

And Odierno objected and said: “Listen, we finally have some stability and security. Violence is down significantly. But most of the work that needs to be done is to political growth and development of this fledgling democracy, and that’s going to require a significant effort on your part, and I’m prepared to assist with that because we have relationships and ties with these senior leaders.” And he pushed back and said, “No.”

So Maliki, after a number of months, comes to understand — despite the fact, as I’ve said, he is a nefarious character — he has a different political relationship with this administration than with the past one: no direct contact whatsoever head of state to head of state; an ambassador on the ground; the president’s personal envoy pushing back and creating distance between the Maliki government and the United States.

As those months go by, he understands unequivocally that this, in fact, is a different relationship. And of course the Iranians sense this, and they are going to try to advantage themselves in developing their relationship with Maliki.

Some people say that basically what took place was a disengagement. Certainly the troops were going to be disengaged very soon, but also politically, that Washington was disengaging.

That’s what I’ve been saying. The fact of the matter is it began in 2009, long before our troops were pulled out, that we began a political disengagement from Iraq which was significant.

In other words, we were no long attempting to shape and guide their political maturation. A huge mistake. That’s what we did so successfully post-World War II in the countries that we defeated, and after the Korean War, and also in the Balkans and in the Philippines.

“The fact of the matter is it began in 2009, long before our troops were pulled out, that we began a political disengagement from Iraq which was significant. In other words, we were no long attempting to shape and guide their political maturation. A huge mistake.”

Here we were disengaging from that political growth and development and leaving Maliki to himself. Now, listen, I’m not absolving Maliki of responsibility here. He’s largely responsible for the crisis that we have. But the United States, make no mistake about it, contributed significantly to the crisis that’s unfolding in Iraq and Syria today by this disengagement, not just in Iraq.

The fact of the matter is it’s going around Iraq at this time that the United States is disengaging from the Middle East — not stating that’s our policy, but in fact it is happening.

Were you ever called upon for advice by this administration?

I was continuing to provide counsel to Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton during this period, mostly because of my involvement in Iraq and also in Afghanistan. …

Did you ever suggest to her that the directions we were going were possibly going to have blowback in the long run?

I did.

Can you tell us a little bit about —

No. Those conversations remain private. I just would say we had very frank and direct conversations.

So 2010, there’s an election in Iraq. Maliki doesn’t get as many votes as Allawi, doesn’t get as many seats as Allawi, and yet he’s the one that the United States decided to back along with Iranians on the other side. What’s going on as far as you can tell about that situation? …

I do believe the 2010 election that you’re thinking of, and the closeness of the vote and the fact that Maliki lost a vote by one, did provide an opportunity for us to influence an outcome.

And I don’t think we need to make any apologies about trying to influence this outcome. This is a fledgling democracy, and we have made a significant contribution to liberate Iraq and expended considerable lives to stop those who were trying to regain what they had lost.

And the fact of the matter is Iraqis themselves wanted a strategic partnership with the United States. So I think we should have been all in, behind the scenes diplomatically influencing this to get a better government solution than what we finally got, which was Maliki again. And that was, I think, a mistake.

What was the debate in Washington about Maliki? What were some of the concerns?

Everybody knew who Maliki was and what his problems were. But the fact of the matter is I don’t think that the United States’ diplomatic effort, given the fact that beginning in 2009 we had made a decision to disengage — now those diplomats are not going to admit that. Everybody who was there watching it believed that we politically disengaged that early. And then comes the election, and those relationships that we should have maintained diplomatically were not as strong as they were when Ambassador Crocker was there or Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad was there. Those relationships had waned, so our influence was not as great.

Even given that limitation, I think we should have made a much more earnest attempt to influence that government, given the opportunity was there with such a close vote.

And the message sent to the Iraqi people was?

The United States was supporting Maliki unequivocally.

And the problems that could grow out of that?

I think that the problems that you got from that was some distrust by the Sunnis. And Maliki, before 2011 and the troop withdrawal, he began to take exception to the Sons of Iraq, which all came from the Sunni tribes.

That was the Anbar Awakening that grew to about 105,000, and there was a point where we would no longer pay them. It was right for them to pay them, and he admitted that he would pay them. And then he stopped paying them. Not only that, he began to purge some of them and actually attacked and killed some of them, particularly in Diyala Province.

He saw the Sons of Iraq not through the same lens that we did. We saw them as Sunni tribes that now were disenfranchised from the Al Qaeda because of their choosing, who wanted to come into the political system and support it and were interested in a stable and secure Iraq.

They had been promised that they would be integrated into the Iraqi security forces. Now, not every person there we knew would be qualified to do that, but assuming that most of them would eventually make their way into that as policemen or as soldiers after the required amount of training and vetting. That largely did not happen.

So those promises were broken. And that was actually before our troops pulled out in 2011.

Big red flag.


… How did we end up with the situation that at the end of 2011, that there are going to be no troops left behind?

I can’t speak to what the White House was thinking, but I do know this: Gen. [C. Donald] Alston, who was our last four-star commander in Iraq, had the requirement to develop the recommendation for the residual force requirement, just to become the basis for the Status of Forces Agreement. His number was around 20,000.

The envoy that came to negotiate the Status of Forces Agreement, I believe it was Brett McGurk, put on the table 10,000. Certainly Maliki and his entire leadership team was very much aware of what the number was in terms of what the American generals believed the requirement would be to sustain the momentum of the Iraqi security forces going forward and the missions that would be attended to.

I cannot speak for Maliki, but I can only deduce when he found out that that number was 10,000, in his mind he knew that was not a serious proposal. And it reflected an attitude that the Americans were not serious about a long-term commitment that was in the strategic framework agreement.

If you couple that with the disengagement that was taking place politically from 2009 to this time frame, which is 2010 after the election, then you can understand the frustration that Maliki and the leadership are feeling, that the United States is truly pulling away from us and not even giving us the forces that are going to be necessary to enable our continued growth and development from a security perspective.

But they’re the ones that put up the fight supposedly that they are not going to sign the agreement. … Maliki says that it will not be passed through the Parliament.

Two things happen here that I think convolute what the status of forces discussions were about.

One is the immunity issue itself. I’m convinced in my one mind that Maliki knows for a fact that we have 40 Status of Forces Agreements around the world with our troops stationed there, and in every single one of those cases, we do not permit our troops to go into the judicial system of a host country. That is a fact.

And he knew this was not something that we would equivocate about. He knew that before negotiations ever began. He knew that before he was elected for this second time, as did all the other candidates who were seeking that office. So that’s number one.

Number two is, I believe Maliki used the immunity issue as face saving for himself, because the number was so ridiculously low — one time it went from 10 to six to three — that he threw that out there to take a stand on it, to provide political cover for himself. He was coming back empty-handed.

Secondly, the Obama administration insisting that this had to be approved by the Parliament in addition to Maliki signing the document, which was only the intent when this process began under the Bush administration, was an unnecessary requirement that presented huge political problems to Maliki that he certainly didn’t want to entertain.

What’s your take on the story that’s out there that during the 2010 election, one of the things is there was an agreement with the Iranians and Maliki to get their support? They would pressure [Muqtada al-] Sadr and stuff to support his remaining as the prime minister and such, and part of the agreement was that no U.S. troops would stay after 2011. You know this whole story that’s out there.

… On the surface of it, we know that the Iranians were supporting Maliki. There’s no doubt about that. I mean, what did Iran want in Iraq? They wanted a stable, secure Iraq, certainly, on their border with a relatively weak government that they could have influence in. And that government is not strategically aligned with the United States, who represents their number one strategic enemy in the region.

That is kind of what Iran had in mind with Iraq and with Maliki, so they are supporting and they are providing money for him. They’re providing political support for him.

What scheme they’re up to in terms of how to influence that, I can’t get into all of that intrigue. But none of it would surprise me in terms of what the Iranians are capable of doing to try to influence Maliki as a leader.

So the troops in December of 2011 pull out. Washington sees it as a victory, defines it as a victory. … What’s your view as you’re seeing the troops being pulled out?

I thought it was an absolute strategic failure on the part of the Obama administration, that they could not see clearly through their own emotional and psychological issues dealing with Iraq and what they were running on in the campaign.

After all, what we had in Iraq is a country that now had some stability and security. It has an educated class of people who had wealth, and they are groping with a fledgling democracy and a not-too-capable and competent leader who happens to be the head of state.

“The promise of Iraq in terms of being an anchor for stability and security in the region is significant, and the Obama administration just failed to grasp that incredible opportunity…”

But the promise of Iraq in terms of being an anchor for stability and security in the region is significant, and the Obama administration just failed to grasp that incredible opportunity and incredible reality, and [they] let their past frustration over Iraq, and Bush’s decision to begin with in going, drive them to make incredibly poor decisions in terms of the overall stability not just of Iraq but the Middle East, because what takes place in Iraq has an impact on other parts of the Middle East as well. …

It’s the day after the troops leave. All of a sudden, Maliki has sent out troops to surround [Vice President Tariq] al-Hashimi’s home, threatening arrest. He escapes. Starts a Sunni crackdown of other political leadership. The day after, or almost the same time as the troops are out, the ambassador is gone. The highest ranking military man is gone. … What’s going on here?

Maliki sees exactly what’s taking place is the United States has disengaged and cut loose whatever relationships we had with them.

And Maliki, before this actually takes place, is beginning to undermine his political opponents. The [symbolism] of what took place with his own vice president the day after all of this takes place obviously is no accident. He planned that to happen. He wanted everybody to get the message.

And the other thing that’s not obvious to people but it is to those who were tracking this, and we were tracking it very closely at the Institute for the Study of War, and that is that he was purging his military leaders, those leaders who had distinguished themselves during the surge.

And I saw a lot of this up close: effective battalion brigade and division commanders, not all, some really good ones out there, and they were rising as a result of that in rank and stature, reputation, and actually some absolute devotion from their troops to them because they were personally courageous and talented.

He purged them, and he put in its place these cronies who were not effective military leaders. Some of them were just given rank. And it was tragic, because over time, over a number of years, the morale of the Iraqi military is collapsing.

But it is not visible, because the numbers are still there. The tanks are there. The helicopters are there. The weapons are there. The soldiers are there. But the fact of the matter is, they are not cohesive units. The AWOL or desertion rate becomes staggeringly high.

When ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] finally comes to Mosul, some of those units that were there were at 50 to 60 percent strength. That’s not a cohesive organization. Fighting forces, particularly ground forces, have to operate on the basis of unit cohesion. They had none of that, and they had ineffective leaders as well.

So Maliki begins to do this over a pattern of three to four years, and the result is what we saw when ISIS came to Iraq and came to Mosul.

Did Washington understand what was going on, what Maliki was doing? Did they understand that the divide was growing between Sunni and Shia again?

Absolutely. There was no way that anybody could not understand what Maliki was doing, that he was clearly undermining his political opponents, in some cases purging them and clearly changing the security forces, which obviously is his power base.

He took to himself the power of minister of defense and minister of the interior even though, obviously, they had been Cabinet-level positions before. And he wanted to control those forces, and control them he did.

And he had all of his cronies put into key places in those forces. All of that was very visible to any observer that was taking place. The political purge was much more obvious and the media would write about that, but what was taking place on the security side was every bit as dramatic as the political purge.

You see this as the seeds of the insurrection, … the eventual ISIS coming down. …

Yes, … because when you look at ISIS and radical Islam, you have to draw back a little bit and take a look at the larger Middle East and what is happening.

The fact of the matter is in 2010, the so-called Arab Spring began, which was one of the most significant geopolitical transformational events the Middle East ever dealt with: people looking for political and social justice and economic opportunity. Nobody in the streets throughout the Middle East when that was taking place was demonstrating for radical Islam and jihad.

But the radical Islamists saw it as opportunity. If there is going to be political upheaval, then they see that as opportunity to influence that political outcome. So they fall in.

And you could see it happening in Egypt, you could see it happening in Libya, and you could see it happening in Syria. The same thing began to take place in Iraq.

The ISIS force, as we now call it, moved to Syria to establish a sanctuary, knowing we could afford to do that there and take up refuge and began to take control of territory. It was from Syria that they began to conduct operations in Iraq and gain the kind of foothold and influence that they finally were able to achieve.

The campaign in Mosul went on for two years, and that was mostly terrorist activities by a terrorist organization. Seizing Mosul was the same terrorist organization coming to Mosul as a terrorist army.

They only could come to Mosul as a terrorist army because of what they were able to achieve in Syria, where their staging bases were, where their equipment was, where their money was, where their sanctuary was. That is all about radical Islam taking advantage of the Arab Spring and the political upheaval.

The problem I see that we had, that was President Obama’s first strategic surprise. Every president has it, and this was the Arab Spring. And it was a significant opportunity for the United States to influence; not to control and certainly not to direct, but actually to influence.

After all, what did these people want? They wanted largely what we have in the United States and in the West, and we could help guide that to a certain degree in terms of our influence. And he chose to back away from it. Radical Islamists all in. …

… How does the Syrian civil war give rise to ISIS, and [what are] the ramifications for Iraq?

If you can remember at the beginning, when the people began to demonstrate against [President Bashar al-] Assad, as they had done in Egypt and against Qaddafi in Libya, many believed that that movement would get put down very quickly, because this is a brutal dictator and he’s learned from Tiananmen Square; he’s learned from Tehran in Iran in July 2009; he’s learned from a Qaddafi so-called failure in Libya. So he begins to put the movement down.

But that movement actually gains momentum, because there is something really special going on in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians were willing to fight after years of repression. The Russians and the Iranians see it. They are going to lose a client state, and they’re all in. That’s what sustains Assad.

But that created space, because that regime did not go when it looked like it would. That creates the space for the radical Islamists to come in. And during this time frame, if you recall in the summer of 2012, the radical Islamists have already showed up.

[Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta, Clinton and Petraeus all recommend to the Obama administration to begin to arm and train the Free Syrian Army, that they can vet the moderates who are part of that, and the administration says no.

“There was no way that anybody could not understand what Maliki was doing, that he was clearly undermining his political opponents, in some cases purging them and clearly changing the security forces, which obviously is his power base.”

That begins to create an even greater vacuum, and the radical Islamic movement grows. The only people that have ever fought ISIS in Syria is not the regime; it is the Free Syrian Army.

So why did the administration say no?

I don’t know. I just believe in my own mind, based on all the other decisions that they made about the Middle East, that they saw any commitment as something that could lead to a protracted involvement in another potential war in the Middle East.

And actually, what you’re trying to do is prevent a negative outcome by helping people fight for themselves against a brutal dictator. They never asked for our troops. They never even asked for our airplanes then.

I spoke to some of them myself. They shopped for themselves all around Washington, anybody who would listen to them. “Give us the weapons to help us fight Assad. We can deal with him if you give us the weapons and help us with some training alongside of that.”

I asked Petraeus this, and [he] wrote about it recently. He said there was no surprise whatsoever in the rise of ISIS. What’s your point of view about it? … Were the warnings out there and just ignored, or what?

We had been tracking it at the Institute for the Study of War for two and a half years, ISIS, and reporting on every new town that they took over and imposed governance on. They began to expand what we all see as red line on a map now.

We were very much aware of what was taking place [with the] ISIS expansion in Syria. And that’s from open sources, … and intelligence services are very conversant with what ISIS was doing. …

The fact that they, one, organized themselves as an army to do it and, two, the speed of what they were able to achieve, namely due to the collapse of the Iraqi military is, in fact, a surprise.

Give me a summation here of who’s at fault. When was the die cast on this? What led us to the point where we are right now?

I believe in 2009, the administration made the decision that after fighting an unnecessary war in Iraq, leading to a war in Afghanistan that took far too long to resolve, mainly because Iraq and the war consumed the resources and put Afghanistan on a delay, that those are mistakes, and we should never, ever make a mistake like that again.

I believe that paralyzed their thinking to the contrary, that it ignored the political upheaval that was taking place in 2010 with the Arab Spring. It ignored the clear desire of the radical Islamists. The radical Islamists were not about Al Qaeda senior leadership simply in Pakistan. This was a significant movement, and they used this to take advantage of it.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is making a strategic decision to pivot to the East and to disengage from the Middle East without stating its objective to disengage. That was a strategic decision that haunts us to this day.

… Do you look back and say, all that was accomplished, all the work that was done, all the lives that were lost, all the money that was spent to accomplish this, it has all been squandered?

In my own mind, it is profoundly disappointing to see what has occurred in Iraq given the sacrifice of our troops, given our commitment to removing Saddam Hussein and putting in place a fledgling government that would have a chance for a stable, secure Iraq.

What did we want out of Iraq? We wanted a country that was stable and secure, that elected its own government, that was not going to be a threat to its neighbors and also was capable of protecting and defending itself. That was our objective in Iraq.

And clearly what is happening now is a failure of that objective because we have external forces that came into Iraq from Syria. We have internal insurgency that is attempting to overthrow this government, and they are succeeding at that. I don’t think the situation is Iraq is over yet, and it remains to be seen what is going to happen there.

This much I do know is that ISIS should be our focus, because this is a menace to the region of the Middle East. Jordan is their next objective, and they certainly would go down that peninsula long term.

It is a threat to Europe and the United States eventually directly because of terrorism, and we need to focus on it. The fact of the matter is the vehicle to address that is through Iraq and through Syria, and we should be doing something about it through both of those countries.

And your thoughts on the path forward? What should be done?

One, focus on ISIS now, and while they are a relatively small force, under 10,000, although obviously they are the new face of Al Qaeda, they are the new face of radical Islam, they are what the 9/11 Al Qaeda dreamt about in terms of establishing a caliphate before they overreached and attacked the United States and as a result of it lost everything: sanctuary, leadership, operational reach and operational control of Al Qaeda.

They are symbolic figures to be certain. And I’m not suggesting that they can’t be a threat again. They could be. But this is a new threat and a new face, and we have to deal with it because it is in the Levant right now, established a bona fide caliphate.

The numbers are not that strong. They are not impregnable. They are something that can be dealt with. These are the same folks that we defeated once before. I think we’d know how to do this.

They’re going to gather in large groups, in large staging areas like they have in Syria, and move along routes with their equipment. That makes them very vulnerable to our use of air power. One, see where the targets are, and two, employ strikes against them.

We should be engaging them with air power. We should be robustly assisting the Free Syrian Army with equipment and also with training. And I mean, put it on fast forward — we have a tendency to do this in half measures — and move that thing forward.

And we have to look at the problem as ISIS in Syria and ISIS in Iraq. If we wait for a political coalition to develop, I think that’s a mistake. I think if we move now and start to influence this situation, I believe it would enhance the political coalition.

Right now, as we are talking, the Russians and the Iranians are assisting Maliki’s government, and that strengthens his hand. It makes it harder to move to a coalition government.

You know that privately he’s saying to his political opponents who want to form a coalition government with him: “Look, I’ve got international support. I’ve got Russian air power here. I’ve got Iranian pilots here. I’ve got airplanes that used to be Iraqis that the Iranians have given back to us. I’ve got Quds Force on the ground. I’ve got advisers assisting me. They are from Russia, and they are from Iran.”

He said, “I have been able to arrange this myself.” That is a smack in the face to the United States as we dither around waiting for something to happen politically. I think the Obama administration, while that rhetoric sounds good, I think it’s an excuse for them not to act until they get a coalition government that is in agreement with what our national objectives are.

… The Awakening Council, the Sunni that were working with the Americans during the surge, what are they doing? Why were they not supporting the Iraqi government when ISIS came through?

The fact of the matter is he undermined the Sunnis politically, and certainly the tribal leaders who were supporting the political apparatus were affected by that. They were so fed up with this government.

They knew after all these years now that there was no way that Maliki was going to enfranchise them in a political process going forward. Actually, he was doing everything he could to disenfranchise them. I believe the Sunni tribes supported ISIS as a huge wake-up call to everybody in the region and absolutely used military arms once again to attempt to achieve political objectives.

I don’t believe for a minute that this marriage between the Sunni tribes and ISIS could ever be a long-term one, for the same reason it was not with the Al Qaeda back in 2005 and 2006. They are diametrically, socially and politically opposed.

The fact of the matter is it’s one of convenience, and that means that we can reach out to these Sunni tribal leaders. Many of our Americans who have relationships with them, those relationships are still there, and we could use that to get back the dialogue with them.

I’m convinced what is absolutely needed right now is Ryan Crocker in Baghdad with a team of people that he would hand-pick based on previous relationships to assist him.

The United States could facilitate a coalition arrangement. We have the skill sets to do it, but most importantly, we have the relationships to do it. I don’t believe the current diplomatic team has those relationships and can come to the ball. You need this team that operated in the past to do it.

That would be a concession the administration would have to make, but after all, this is their number one objective in Iraq…. to achieve a political arrangement where everybody in Iraq is represented in a new government. Let’s put a team in there that can help them get that accomplished. The current team I don’t believe is going to get us there.

Do you think there is any chance of that happening whatsoever?

I don’t know. I was involved in some discussions [in the] last week or two along these lines, and these proposals have certainly been made. And I would like to think the administration is at least considering this proposal, because it is what their number one objective is: a new coalition government before they would furnish any direct, military support other than advisers.

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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