Ryan Crocker: “Our National Security… Is At Stake Right Now”


July 29, 2014

Ryan Crocker served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, and was also ambassador in several Middle Eastern and South Asian countries before and after Iraq. He is now a dean and professor at Texas A&M University. Crocker talked to FRONTLINE about his concerns before the Iraq war, and whether the U.S. could have prevented the rising threat of the militant group ISIS. This is the edited transcript of his interview, conducted on July 10, 2014.

In 2002, you wrote a memo for the president. President Bush asked you to look at the war in Iraq and what the consequences could possibly be if we went in, and you wrote a report called “The Perfect Storm.” When you look back at those days — and you were very honest about the potential problems of taking on this task — you look at the situation that’s on the ground right now, what goes through your brain about what we knew, what you advised back then, and what the realities have become at this point?

One correction: Nobody asked me to write that memo. That came out of a horrible fear of what we were getting into. It was actually drafted by my staff at my request. But it was not a request from anybody above me, and I don’t think anybody above me wanted to see it.

Where we are now? After 40 years in the Middle East, I’ve learned maybe two things. One thing I learned is, be very careful what you get into if you’re contemplating military intervention.

I learned that in Beirut, when we backed the Israeli invasion of 1982, and we and the Israelis paid dearly for it. We got rid of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], and we got Hezbollah. We got our embassy blown up. I survived that bombing, and I was there when the Marine barracks went up. So be very careful what you get into.

That’s what I was thinking in 2002. We haven’t thought this through. We haven’t thought of the 40th and 50th order of consequences of bringing down a regime in the center of the Middle East.

So I was scared. I didn’t intend to be particularly predictive in that memo. I couldn’t see what might happen. I simply tried to lay out what could happen, and is it worth it?

The other lesson I learned is close to that: Be very careful what you propose to get out of. Disengagement can have as severe consequences as that initial engagement, and we’ll probably talk about that later.

Where we are now in Iraq? And the situation as of today, does it surprise you?

It hasn’t surprised me since I began to see the rise of what was then named the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS], because when I was in Iraq as ambassador, 2007 to 2009, those two years, we and the Iraqis fought hard against a very vicious Al Qaeda in Iraq [AQI] offensive, beat it back in Anbar, the Awakening.

But their second vector of attack was from the northwest, from Syria into Ninawa Province, aimed at Mosul. We had some pretty hard work stopping those guys. We did, but it’s always been in the back of my mind that never underestimate your enemy.

“After 40 years in the Middle East, I’ve learned maybe two things: … Be very careful what you get into if you’re contemplating military intervention, [and] … Be very careful what you propose to get out of.”

These are strategic thinkers, and as they began to take the ascendancy in northern Syria, I could see that their next thing was going to be northern Iraq. So I was not very much surprised when they went in. After all, they’d already taken Fallujah and were at the outskirts of Ramadi in the west.

I was taken aback by the speed and efficiency with which they conducted that offensive and the rapidity of the collapse of the Iraqi forces.

… So 2006, things are going pretty badly in Iraq. Samarra has happened in February; it’s unraveling. In Washington, they’re starting to debate the policy that they’ve been going through. They’re also fearing the fact that we don’t have the right leadership in Iraq, so we’re searching for another solution. Is there a better person that would be more successful in Iraq, and Maliki’s name comes up. … What should we know about Maliki in the beginning and how the United States and the relationship begins?

Nouri al-Maliki is one of the most complex national leaders I have ever dealt with. I spent time when I arrived in Iraq in early 2007 just getting to know him, not bringing in the latest demand, but simply sitting down and talking to him about his past, about his perspective, about his vision for the future.

He grew up in a clandestine organization, the Dawa Party, the religious [Islamic] Call [Party]. He joined it in his latter years of high school, so that’s been his political identity his entire life.

It is not an exclusionary party — certainly wasn’t at the time he joined it — formed by a highly respected religious figure, [Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr], who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein in [1980], the same time that Nouri al-Maliki had to flee for his life as Hussein’s forces were hunting down every Dawa member they could find because they considered them a threat to the regime.

He first went to Iran. Here’s an interesting little anecdote. He spent several years there. Shortly after I arrived, I was watching on television a meeting he was having with the Irani [sic] national security adviser, and there was an interpreter. The next time I saw the prime minister, I said, “Sir, I was surprised you had an interpreter with Mr. [Ali] Larijani.” He looked at me as though I was proving to be even dumber than the reports he had received and said, “Yeah, well, he doesn’t speak Arabic.” And I said, “Well, Prime Minister Maliki, I assumed that after your years in Iran, you would speak Farsi.”

He was offended by that. He said, “You do not know what arrogance is until you’re an Iraqi Arab forced to take refuge among the Persians,” and went on to say how he just sequestered himself from all contact he could avoid with the Iranians and then got himself to Syria as soon as he could.

That told me something interesting about him as a Shia leader: no love lost between him and the Iranians or between them and him.

What’s our attitude about him? What do we think about him? Is there a debate over him in the early days?

I was, of course, not in Iraq at the time he became prime minister. What I saw when I arrived was a complete zero-sum equation. The Kurds wanted theirs, the Shia wanted theirs, and the Sunnis wanted theirs. The spirit of compromise was nowhere evident.

And that’s not hard to understand. They came out of a bloody, brutal past where compromise meant concession, concession meant defeat, and defeat meant death. So it was clear to me from my first weeks in Iraq that if anything good was going to happen, we would have to be the essential middleman.

… I would have to meet with the Sunni leadership, determine their core grievances, figure out which ones were hype and which ones were serious, take the serious ones to Malaki and say, “This is what they need, and if you can give them this much, I think I can get that much back.” And then you’d do the same with the Kurds, and it kind of, sort of worked.

It wasn’t just me. My battle buddy, [Gen. David] Petraeus, was also my political partner on the ground. And we had the full backing of Washington. [Secretary of Sate Condoleezza] Rice was on the phone; she was on the plane. Bob Gates was as much a diplomatic representative as he was a [secretary of defense]. And the president was always ready to pick up the phone and call anybody anytime with any message.

But it only worked with us right in the middle. And it did work. By the time I left in 2009, that was probably the best of times for Iraq since the invasion.

… Talk a little bit about the relationship between Bush and Maliki, those weekly teleconferences that you all had, where in some ways Maliki was learning about the Americans, learning about leadership in a way. He’d never been at that level, and he’s now talking to the president of the United States every week. …

The teleconferences between President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki were important. They were not weekly. They were less frequent than that, and that was intentional on the president’s part. He wanted to be sure that Maliki understood that Dave Petraeus and I represented him and spoke for him, so he did not want to take over our roles, and I appreciated that personally, as did Dave. But it was also the right thing to do.

“Nouri al-Maliki, a very complicated figure. His coming of age, in which he saw members of his family, his party, tracked down and murdered, drove him into a zero-sum mode, where he would trust no one except those closest to him who were from his party.”

The president was very good on those teleconferences. He didn’t lecture; he didn’t lay down demands. He was reflective. He sought Maliki’s opinions. He’d offer some suggestions, but suggestions from the president of the United States are taken seriously.

Maliki carefully prepared for those meetings. The president was very good at this. He just spoke extemporaneously. Maliki always had notes from which he spoke, and he took notes.

So it wasn’t really a schooling in the sense of the president speaks and the prime minister obeys. It was handled much more delicately than that, and the president always showed respect for the prime minister; respect for the difficult situation he faced, and most importantly, respect for the sovereignty of Iraq and the sovereignty of his decisions. …

… During this very important point, big changes were going on in Iraq. There are also big changes in the United States. Talk a little bit about the big, radical turn toward a new philosophy, which became the surge. We’ve got the congressional elections in 2006 that seem to have adjusted the understanding of the president about what the public is thinking. You’ve got [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld, who leaves almost immediately. You’ve got a debate over Gen. [George W.] Casey’s philosophy. And lo and behold, what comes out of this is a surge. Take us on a little bit of that journey of how the president comes to take upon himself, and as our policy, a very radical change in directions, where Petraeus and you end up over there moving toward a very new direction.

… This was a case where it was the president with only a few advisers who decide on the surge. It was a presidential decision. Most of his advisers, as I understand it, said don’t do it. It won’t work, and it will cost us a tremendous amount in blood and treasure. He saw it as our last best hope and went with it.

At the time, he asked me to be ambassador to Iraq. I was then ambassador to Pakistan. Fall of ’06, the worst of the worst times. He gave no inclination at all of his feelings, just asked me to do it, and I thought, “Oh, somebody shoot me now.”

But I’m a career officer, and I said, “Yes, sir, thank you.” It was only after, I think, Dave as well had been named that the surge was announced, and Dave and I started our coordination very shortly thereafter, when I was still in Islamabad and he was at Fort Leavenworth, [Kan.], how we were going to make this work.

Why did this task come to you?

I had been to all the tough places. I served in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion. At the height of the civil war, I went back as ambassador to Lebanon. I was ambassador to Syria, Kuwait, then Pakistan. …

I’m a crisis junkie. I spent my career, by and large, in conflict zones. I’m very comfortable in conflict areas, have a sense of how you size them up, how you manage them, how you try and resolve them.

And why Gen. Petraeus? Sort of unorthodox. He had a lot of folks that weren’t fans of his at DOD [Department of Defense]. Why go for him?

I think the reason he had a lot of detractors is because he was so damn good and definitely the smartest general on the block. He also literally wrote the book when he was at Fort Leavenworth on the counterinsurgency manual, [U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual], which I keep with me to this day.

He had thought through and talked to those who had been in the fight and clearly had an intellectual construct over how these things should be managed. So the president chose very, very well and for all the right reasons.

… [National Security Advisor Stephen] Hadley went out early on his first trip over there, and he came back with a report to the president about questioning whether Maliki had the potential to be a national leader. He was somewhat worried. Give us a little bit of that debate, from the very early days on, this concern over Maliki and what Hadley was saying and how that added to the debate.

Nouri al-Malaki, a very complicated figure. His coming of age, in which he saw members of his family, his party, tracked down and murdered, drove him into a zero-sum mode, where he would trust no one except those closest to him who were from his party.

But in this he was no different from the Sunni leaders, Tariq al-Hashimi from the Iraqi Islamic Party, that suffered pretty much the same fate as the Shia Dawa and the Kurds.

We all remember — well, actually we don’t; we’re Americans, so we remember very little — the Anfal campaign, in which 5,000 Kurds were gassed to death by Saddam’s sources.

So the trust level between the Kurds and the Sunnis was zero, between the Shia and the Sunnis was zero, and the Sunnis and the Shia and the Kurds was zero. That was simply the political reality.

What I think Steve Hadley was saying is, we have got a lot of work in front of us. What the president said is, we backed Maliki; we are going to stand by him, and we are going to make this work.

There was a moment when Dave Petraeus and I, because we were in the smoke and the dust every single damn day, had had it with Maliki. We said, “Boss, we’ve got to have a change here.” And the president effectively said: “You know, guys, I know you’re under a lot of pressure, but just go sit under a tree until that notion passes from your mind. We are going to make it work with Maliki. There is no other alternative.” And actually at that time, he was right.

So the surge takes some time to get going, but of course Americans, the press, the Congress, the public, doesn’t have a lot of patience. You guys are under a lot of pressure. The September hearings, I guess, are the biggest point where that is quite obvious. Take us into that point: your being on the hot seat, because they’re questioning the fact that there’s political lack of progress. What was your view at that point? What were you telling them, and how do you look back at that [now]?

The early months of the surge were pretty horrible. We were losing hundreds of troops, and neither Dave nor I could say it was going to succeed in the spring of ’07.

June was our worst month. We lost more than 120 Americans in combat. But that’s also when we started to turn the corner, when the Awakening really caught on, because we had the backs of the tribes who hated Al Qaeda, and with us, with them, we were prepared to stand up against them. It was when Maliki showed some of his statesmanlike moments.

Early June, another attack on the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, which as you know sparked the horrific civil conflict of 2006. Dave and I went to see the prime minister and talked about how to control it, and the prime minister knew what he had to do to be sure that Grand Ayatollah [Ali al-] Sistani immediately issued a public statement calling for calm and consensus among all Iraqis against a foreign element that seeks to destroy the nation. Maliki made that call, and the ayatollah made the statement.

“There was a moment when Dave Petraeus and I, because we were in the smoke and the dust every single damn day, had had it with Maliki. We said, ‘Boss, we’ve got to have a change here.'”

He also asked Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi to come over to his office, and then the two of them — and they loathed each other — came together and then made a joint statement to the press saying the same thing: This is an instigation. We cannot rise to it. Sunni and Shia must stand together.

That may have been a defining moment that tipped the balance along with the awakening. I mean, a lot of things came together. But by July, we could see the beginning of a shift.

And again, if one looks for Malaki, not without a little U.S. persuasion, understanding he needed to reach out just before Dave and I testified in September, he delivered the first Iraqi budget supplemental to a province in Iraq.

Now we all can argue about whether budget supplementals are a good thing or not based on our own experience, but he allocated an additional $250 million to the provincial budget of Anbar, which is totally Sunni.

I went out there with the Shia vice president and the Kurdish deputy prime minister for a meeting with the provincial government and all the prominent sheiks of Anbar who suddenly saw the prime minister in a different way. It did help set the stage for our testimony a bit.

So there was movement certainly on the military side, and there was movement as you were defining on the political side. But you were concerned that there wasn’t enough movement on the political side. What were your worries?

My worries, frankly, were focused more on Washington than on Baghdad. I’d been in that region long enough to know how hard these things are, how much baggage politicians from Iraq and elsewhere carry because of their past.

I knew it was going to be slow and hard, and Dave and I both worried about the extraordinary difference between the Baghdad clock and the Washington clock. Our clock ran much faster. We are an impatient people. We want results; we want them now.

The Iraqis were going to take time to be able to deliver on that after what they had been through under Saddam and then in their own civil war. So it was really more just telling Washington to calm down.

And by that I don’t mean the administration. The president got it, and he made sure that his key Cabinet members got it. But it was Congress and public opinion that we had to deal with.

The problems, though, in creating an inclusive government. Talk a little bit about that.

When I first got to Iraq and spent a week making the rounds with all the political leaders — Sunni, Shia, Kurd — I came back and reported, and I video-conferenced with the president and his national security team. Said: “Sir, we call this a national unity government. My initial impressions lead me to believe it is by no means national, it is certainly not unified, and it meets no test that I can think of of being an actual government.”

He named me after that Mr. Sunshine. But it was an indication, again, of the depth of the problem, the experience they’d all been through, the zero-sum nature of their thinking that I referred to, and how we had to be right in the middle of it all the time if they were going to get to anywhere good.

… Does the surge resolve Iraq’s sectarian divide? In the bigger picture, the successes that you had, does it in fact move the bar when it comes to fixing that division?

It helped, but it certainly did not fix it. The Sunnis withdrew from the government in late summer 2007. Not all of them, but those who counted did.

What did resolve, for a time, the sectarian tensions was another surge. And that was the Iraqi surge of April 2008, when Maliki decided that he was going to take on with his military the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, who had significant Iranian backing.

He did it without consulting with us. We were not at all sure it would succeed, and he took them on in Baghdad, Sadr City, in the cities of the south and principally in Basra.

And whatever one may say about Nouri al-Maliki, he is a man of courage. He went down to Basra himself to direct the fight under constant shelling. His chief of security was killed. He almost was. But he was going to lead that fight with a lot of help from U.S. military advisers and special enablers, air support.

He prevailed, and the fact that he took on a Shia adversary, stuck with it, and defeated them, brought the Sunnis back into government, brought public praise from Tariq al-Hashimi, and for a period really did overcome that sectarian divide because he showed that he would stand up not only to Al Qaeda and the Sunnis, but that he’d take on the Shia if they threatened the state.

… Obama visits Baghdad in 2008. He’s still campaigning, but it’s looking more likely that he is actually going to become president. Describe that meeting a little bit, when he sat down with you and Petraeus. … What did you take away from that meeting? And tell us a little bit of the details of that meeting, because I think it’s a really important one, and what you learned about the man and what worries it possibly brought about, what your thinking was.

It was just the second time I had seen him. The first was during the 2007 testimony, when his question as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee was so long that I didn’t get to give an answer.

But what I learned from listening to his question in 2007 and from what I heard in 2008 was this was a very, very intelligent and very, very thoughtful political figure. He expressed his views on timelines, but he also didn’t foreclose really anything.

He didn’t say, “If I’m elected, it’s going to be this, that and the other.” He was open to hear from Dave and from me what we thought and how we assessed the situation. Clearly he was leaning toward the exit, but he was also prepared to absorb arguments about why we needed to be very careful.

So I came out of that meeting thinking that we had a potential candidate here that people might be reading a little bit wrong on the case of Iraq; that he understood what the stakes were, he understood how much we had invested, what the importance of Iraq was to us, and that while he had certainly opposed the invasion and didn’t think anything good would come of it, his was not a closed mind by any means.

… His 16-month policy that he talked about, did that worry you guys? There was some debate there.

Oh, yes. We argued very forcefully against setting down any timelines, as Americans who had nothing better to do with their time than listen to our 23 hours of testimony in September 2007 would have noticed. Dave Petraeus and I refused to talk about timelines.

We talked about what needed to be done and the need to maintain strategic patience and commitment until those things were done. To set an arbitrary timeline is just telling the enemy how long he has to wait, and that can be very dangerous, and that is the argument we made. …

Once in office, Obama, how do things change? There’s a background, everything he seems to be doing, of disengagement. He’s moving toward the troops leaving, but a lot of people will say there was a disengagement as far as the politics. Certainly for Maliki, he wasn’t getting his weekly or biweekly or whatever teleconference with the president. How do things change, and you’re looking at it as a good thing or a bad thing?

I’ve said publicly that we disengaged not only militarily at the end of 2011, we disengaged politically. I think that the security agreement that we tried to get in 2010 is something we could have gotten. I’m not going to do a postmortem on it. I think there were mistakes on both sides.

But it did lead, of course, to the withdrawal of all U.S. forces. Much more seriously, it led to that political disengagement where senior-level regular phone calls, senior-level regular visits, basically ceased.

Until Secretary [of State John] Kerry’s last visit a few weeks ago, there was exactly one visit to Iraq since the end of 2011 until mid-2014 by a Cabinet-level official.

And given that we were hard-wired into their political system, they wouldn’t be able to function effectively with each other among communities without us. I think that disengagement brought them all back to zero-sum thinking.

Maliki certainly bears a major responsibility. He is the prime minister. But the Kurds and the Shia went in the same opposite directions. And again, we were the only ones who could have been an antidote to that. We left the stage.

Why did all the troops leave? Why did the discussion fall apart and SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] fall apart, do you think?

I’ve got to be clear here: I was in no way involved and don’t have any deep inside perspective. However, I had been the lead negotiator for the security agreement that we got in 2008, to which this was supposed to be the successor agreement.

The way we did it then was quite unconventional. We did not negotiate it as a SOFA. That’s why I call it a security agreement. SOFAs are incredibly complex. They take years to negotiate, even with close allies. You can’t do that with Iraq.

We kept control of the negotiation in Baghdad, and I was the lead negotiator. My team was Baghdad-based. Certainly we had recourse to smart people in Washington, but we also had the backing of the president to do it our way.

The 2010 negotiation, as I understand it, was handled more or less as a SOFA negotiation, meaning it was Washington-based and it was driven by the lawyers. Lawyers are very important as advisers, but lawyers should not ever be in a position of dictating policy. And I think that’s the position we got ourselves into.

Did it seem like both sides wanted it to fail?

It’s very hard for me to read. Prime minister Maliki, in one of my last discussions with him before he left Baghdad in 2009, said: “We are going to need your forces for decades. We’re just going to have to figure out the right way to do it.” And we didn’t figure out the right way.

We treated it as a victory, that this was a promise that the president had made, that all the troops were leaving. We ignored the failure of leaving some troops behind. Was it a victory?

This should be pretty self-evident, but withdrawing your troops from the field doesn’t end a war. It simply leaves a space open for other people’s troops to move in, and they are probably not going to share our objectives. And that’s just what happened.

… How important was the 2010 election in Iraq, and what does it tell us about Maliki?

… Maliki was clearly going to fight very, very hard to maintain the prime ministership, and there’s a reason for that that we don’t really understand in our secure democracy. Losers in elections in that part of the world may lose more than the election.

I served as ambassador to Pakistan. There’s a pithy little phrase in Urdu: Two men, one grave. It’s you, or it’s me. …

“Given that we were hard-wired into their political system, they wouldn’t be able to function effectively with each other among communities without us. I think that disengagement brought them all back to zero-sum thinking.”

In the back of Maliki’s mind is that if he lost the election and stayed in Iraq, which he was determined to do, he’d be brought up on capital charges. We’ve seen the same thing again with [President Pervez] Musharraf in Pakistan. So it was more than an election for Maliki. It was his life. …

… The United States’ attempt to force cooperation of power sharing pretty much failed at that point. What did it say about us? What did it say about our hopes at that point? How much of a turning point was that?

Again, I think it’s a question of will and engagement. To accept whatever outcome is possible, Iraq had to have a government, and I think it became clear fairly early on that Maliki held more cards, even if his own slate had two fewer votes in being able to form that government. …

Every effort should have been made, and maybe was, to say: “OK, we’re fine for that. But it’s got to be a government like the government you had all the way through 2008. It’s got to have the Sunnis; it’s got to have the Kurds; and they have to have positions of real influence, and you have to take their concerns seriously.”

And that didn’t work out then?

It didn’t work out. I’m not saying we didn’t make the effort, because I don’t know, but we did not get the result.

… What’s your take on the whole story of Maliki’s pressure that happens right after, the day after, al-Hashimi’s house is surrounded and he’s forced to run? Soon after that, Rafe al-Essawi situation happens. The heavy-handedness, it takes place immediately after the elections, after the troops are removed. What’s your take on that?

An interpretation by Maliki, and indeed the others, [was] that the U.S. was withdrawing more than its troops. It was withdrawing its influence and its interest.

I would have liked to have seen the vice president, the secretary of state arrive in Iraq the day after the troops left. We still had, and do have, the strategic framework agreement which basically binds us together as allies. I was the leading negotiator for that. It is still in force.

But if I was making recommendations at the time, that is the recommendation I made, that we are gone militarily, we are here politically. And to have the secretary or the vice president on the ground to say, “Our interest has in no way changed. We are a player here. This is important to us. We are going to use our influence for a strong unified Iraq,” I think could have made a difference.

But that didn’t happen.

No, it didn’t.

So what’s the thinking that Maliki probably was doing?

Then you revert to zero-sum. I’ve described Maliki’s upbringing and socializing in a clandestine Shia movement that was almost exterminated by a Sunni regime. He will never lose the fear that the Baath Party will come back, and he sees basically in almost every Sunni a nascent Baathist.

So with us no longer there, he was going to go after what he saw as a potential threat, which was the Sunni leadership.

Thus reconciliation was dead.

Without us, yes. With us, could have been a different story.

In 2009, as you leave, you warned about Maliki. You talked about his dictator’s tendencies. This had repeated fears that you had in 2006. Take us to that moment. You’re leaving, and what are your final warnings about Maliki?

My concern about Maliki, and indeed the whole political process in Iraq, is that continued fears born of bloody experience were going to drive them to defensive, zero-sum thinking that would make compromise impossible.

Maliki’s motivation is not, in my view, to aggrandize power. It’s defensive. It is fear-driven.

He once, twice at least, likened himself to a former Iraqi leader named Abdul Karim Kassem, a general who overthrew the Iraqi monarchy in 1958. [Kassem] then did everything he could to build alliances here, turn them against adversaries there, flip the tables, any number of machinations among Sunni, Shia and Kurds, that eventually he lost control and was overthrown.

That was Maliki’s abiding fear, that it was the same Iraqi political culture that it had been since the ’50s, and sooner or later a coalition of adversaries would overthrow him.

So all of his moves, in my view, to exercise what was seen as autocratic control wasn’t to be a new Saddam; it was to avoid being the next Abdul Karim Kassem.

… The warning signs of ISIS. … Why did we not see it? Why do you think this administration missed it? … How is it possible for ISIS to have happened, and why were we surprised?

That ISIS gained ascendancy in the Syrian opposition should have been absolutely no surprise, and I won’t go through the bloody history that started in 1982, but it’s all from that when [Hafez al-] Assad Sr. annihilated this Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in February of ’82, in the process killing somewhere north of 15,000 Sunni civilians.

It permanently radicalized the Sunni population and virtually guaranteed that when the fight started, the Sunni opposition was going to be led by the most extreme elements. Anyone surprised by that is, frankly, too dumb to hold a responsible position.

“This time, it is Al Qaeda version 6.0. They make bin Laden’s 2011 Al Qaeda look like Boy Scouts.”

That they had their eyes on Iraq, we knew that since the time I was there in ’07, ’08, ’09, when they made repeated moves — not ISIS, this is Al Qaeda in Iraq at that time — to try to get to Mosul.

So it’s only two dots you have to connect. We should not have been surprised. I’m just not sure we really cared.

What do you mean by that?

The war was over; we were out; let the chips fall where they may. Well, I don’t think we thought through exactly how many chips were going to fall and what the consequences of that would be.

And the consequences are? How dangerous a situation is it?

This is analogous to Afghanistan, say, in August 2001. And this time, it is Al Qaeda version 6.0. They make bin Laden’s 2011 Al Qaeda look like Boy Scouts.

They are far stronger; they are far more numerous. They have thousands who hold foreign passports and require no visas to get into the United States or other Western countries.

They are well funded, they are battle-hardened, and they are well armed. And they now control far more territory exclusively than bin Laden ever did. They have the security; they have the safety to plan their next set of operations; and they are a messianic movement.

Believe me, they are planning those operations. That’s why the Saudis moved 30,000 troops up to their border. They know that ISIS wants Mecca and Medina.

They also want to come after us. And I can tell you, as we sit here today in Washington, they’re sitting in Mosul figuring out how they’re going to get at us next.

Are you frustrated? Are you mad? You look back at all this, and what do you think?

I try not to look back. Living in the past is not a very happy thing to do. I do look to the future, and I hope we take some steps very quickly with great determination to protect our national security, because that is at stake right now.

In 2011, you were brought into the White House to give some advice. They were looking for advice. I guess they were pretty paranoid with the situation. What were their worries? … Take me into that last meeting and why you were brought in and what your advice was?

Actually, this was 2010, after the elections. I was brought into the White House in 2011, but that was to be sent to Afghanistan.

The first thing I said was, don’t panic. Let’s just disaggregate what we’ve got here. What are the problems, and how do you get at them?

And I did argue that there was a wealth of experience on Iraq, hands who had been through good and bad, knew the players, and we needed to take full advantage of their talents and get them out there and get them engaged, and that the senior administration needed to be engaged as well.

And did they take your advice?

At that time, the vice president was very much engaged: visits, phone calls and so forth. A great American, Brett McGurk, who I specifically mentioned, eventually was sent to Iraq [as deputy secretary for Iraq and Iran in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs], and he is there right now doing heroic work along with our ambassador [to Iraq], Steve Beecroft.

But it took quite a lift to get the administration to send him out, since he had been a political appointee under the Bush administration. It is to the Obama administration’s credit, because this does not happen often, that they realized Brett’s incredible ability and knowledge and did send him out. But it took a while. …

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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