Guest Host: Susan Page

Iraqi fighters of the Shiite militia The League of the Righteous stand guard outside their headquarters  May 18 2015 in Basra, as Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from ISIS.

Iraqi fighters of the Shiite militia The League of the Righteous stand guard outside their headquarters May 18 2015 in Basra, as Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from ISIS.

The Iraqi government is calling for volunteers to join in the fight to retake the city of Ramadi. The fall of Ramadi days ago to the group calling itself the Islamic State has set off alarms in the region and Washington. Several prominent Republican lawmakers have urged the Obama administration to send 10,000 U.S. troops to Iraq. The White House has downplayed the significance of the Ramadi defeat and says it has no plans to put American combat forces back on the ground in Iraq. We look at how recent gains by ISIS in Iraq and Syria have renewed concerns over U.S. strategy to fight the militant group.


  • Ambassador James Jeffrey The Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow at The Washington Institute; former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey
  • Tom Bowman Pentagon correspondent, NPR.
  • Nora Bensahel Distinguished scholar in residence, School of International Service, American University.


  • 10:06:54

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back next week. The fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi days ago has fueled criticism of the Obama administration's strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the militant group, ISIS. Critics say the policy has failed and some Republican lawmakers are calling for thousands of U.S. ground troops to be sent to Iraq.

  • 10:07:21

    MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me in the studio to talk about efforts to retake Ramadi and current U.S. strategy toward ISIS, Ambassador James Jeffrey of The Washington Institute, Nora Bensahel of American University and Tom Bowman of NPR. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:07:38

    AMB. JAMES JEFFREYGood to be here.

  • 10:07:39

    MS. NORA BENSAHELThank you.

  • 10:07:39

    MR. TOM BOWMANWelcome, thank you.

  • 10:07:40

    PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Tom Bowman, it's been a couple days since Ramadi fell to Islamic State. What is happening there now?

  • 10:08:03

    BOWMANWell, right now, ISIS is in control and there are huge numbers of refugees heading out of the city, I think 100,000 or more. And now the Shiite militias are moving in, getting ready to, at some point, try to retake the city. They're around Habbaniyah now, which is an old British base from, I think, the '20s. And the Americans have stepped up their surveillance with drones. You've seen additional bombing runs by the U.S. over the past few days.

  • 10:08:38

    BOWMANAnd it's, right now, kind of wait and see, see at what point the militias, Shiite militias, head into that city.

  • 10:08:46

    PAGEWell, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, you were the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012. How significant is the fall of the city?

  • 10:08:56

    JEFFREYIt's significant for three reasons. First of all, the pitch was that ISIS is being rolled back. Suddenly, they're rolling forward. So that questions the basic strategy of degrading and destroying. Secondly, this is a Sunni Arab part of Iraq where people took up arms against ISIS and held them off for a year with limited help from us and from the Iraqi government.

  • 10:09:22

    JEFFREYSo if we're trying to build our return to normalcy by enlisting the Iraqi Sunni Arabs, this has taken a real blow. Thirdly, it's called into question our strategy of air support because we gave air support to the Iraqi conventional army. It didn't work and they lost the city.

  • 10:09:42

    PAGENora Bensahel, you have said this is not just a strategic defeat, but also a symbolic one. How so?

  • 10:09:51

    BENSAHELRamadi was not supposed to be a difficult battle, according to the prime minister of Iraq, nor was it supposed to have the consequences that the ambassador just laid out. In terms of its significance on the battlefield, it's nowhere near as significant as Mosul, the city that fell last summer and that the prime minister of Iraq had hoped would be the next, you know, the wave of victory coming out of Ramadi would lead Iraqi forces on to retake Mosul and to try to have that be the final push of ISIS out of many of the cities.

  • 10:10:22

    BENSAHELObviously, with that failing, it has all of the consequences that were just mentioned. Weakens the prime minister of Iraq very significantly and calls into question how much the Iraqi forces are going to be capable and willing to take on what is proving to be a very adaptive and very tactically smart ISIS on the battlefield.

  • 10:10:41

    PAGEAnd, you know, Tom, the city of Ramadi, the province it's in, Anbar, this is familiar to a lot of Americans. A lot of American soldiers died battling there.

  • 10:10:51

    BOWMANAbsolutely. In Ramadi, particularly Fallujah, also in Anbar Province, you had hundreds, thousands of Americans, particularly Marines, killed and wounded over the years. A lot of them look at this now incredibly upset about what has happened, that it's fallen. But, you know, it really calls into question the strategy. You need a ground force to take ground and the bottom line is there is no ground force right now.

  • 10:11:18

    BOWMANWe've seen, on numerous occasions, the Iraqi forces flee. We saw it in Mosul last year. In Tikrit, they couldn't close the deal. You had to bring in the Shiite militias there. And now, in Ramadi, they turned tail and ran. Their estimates of roughly, I think, 1,000 ISIS fighters in all of Anbar Province and, roughly, they say they had 3,000 Iraq forces and police that fled.

  • 10:11:42

    PAGEWe should note that we reached out to the Obama administration and sought to have a spokesman from there participate in our conversation or call into the show. They declined that opportunity, but if they'd like to call in, we'd be delighted to hear from them. Ambassador Jeffrey, I wonder is this -- is the fall of the city, does it reflect a kind of turning point in assessments of how the Obama strategy is working in Iraq and against ISIS?

  • 10:12:08

    JEFFREYWe certainly can hope so. The same cheery message came out of the White House after Fallujah and particularly Mosul fell. But it did lead to a rethinking of what we had at stake and eventually by August we did get into the fight and we had considerable success. We need to relook at what this portends for our strategy of destroying ISIS. You either change the strategy or you change the means to carry out the strategy.

  • 10:12:37

    JEFFREYI can't second guess our military commanders, but I'm very suspicious that they are not being given a free hand to tell the president what they need to destroy ISIS any time soon and this is not a long term project.

  • 10:12:52

    PAGEYou're a career foreign service officer. You served in -- as a deputy national security advisor for President George W. Bush as well as an ambassador for President Obama. Is it a turning point in terms of your own personal assessment of how this is working?

  • 10:13:07

    JEFFREYYes. I thought that the administration in the sort of somewhat half-hearted way that this administration goes about waging war really got it that ISIS had to be defeated, that this is not something we could just leave to contain. Now, I'm not sure. Strategy is taking choices and if our choice is no risk, no casualties and if that means no defeat of ISIS, so be it. That's what we need to relook at.

  • 10:13:34

    PAGENora Bensahel, what do you think.

  • 10:13:35

    BENSAHELThere are certain things that we could do on the military side to be providing more support, but I think, ultimately, at the end of the day, the U.S. does not have a whole lot of strategic options for victory, other than deploying large numbers of ground forces because what Tom said is exactly right. There are no effective ground forces. The forces that are there in Iraq, not just lack capabilities that the U.S. could provide training for, they lack the will to fight such a brutal enemy that is so tactically proficient in a Sunni part of the country.

  • 10:14:05

    BENSAHELMost of the government security forces are Shiite. That's separate from the Shiite militias, but most of the members of the Iraqi security forces are Shiite. So you put all of those things together and you don't solve the problem in Iraq without ground troops and I think that's a step that this president and, frankly, I think a future president, would be very unlikely to consider.

  • 10:14:23

    PAGEWhat do you think, Tom? We see some Republicans saying, let's send 10,000 U.S. ground forces back there to Iraq, but, of course, President Obama was nominated and elected to the office in large part, or at least in part, because of his opposition, his vow to end U.S. engagement in Iraq. Is it possible that the administration would consider this course?

  • 10:14:45

    BOWMANSending in thousands of American troops?

  • 10:14:47


  • 10:14:47

    BOWMANI don't think that's -- but from what they've said, they said they would never do that. They're not even willing to send in small, you know, Green Beret teams or small numbers of air controls that could call in bombing strikes. They're not willing to do that. I'm told that it's only used in one occasion where they called in air controllers and that was during the Yazidi humanitarian issue up in the north.

  • 10:15:11

    BOWMANThat's the only time they actually did it. But now, they have trainers over in Iraq helping, you know, build up the Iraqi forces, but there's not talk, at this point, of bringing in any U.S. ground troops, even in small numbers, although General Dempsey mentioned, when he was testifying on the Hill last year, that if you try to take Mosul back, you may need some of those air controllers on the ground to help call in bombing strikes.

  • 10:15:37

    PAGEYes, Ambassador.

  • 10:15:38

    JEFFREYAnd this is where Tom, I and the rest of us have a problem because we don’t want to second guess our own military. We're not experts. But here's the thing. 10,000 troops. We have 10,000 troops today in Afghanistan. Green Berets and other advisors are out in the field with Afghani units. They're fighting. They're taking casualties under a thin train and equip guise and we have different rules of engagement.

  • 10:16:04

    JEFFREYIf we can do this in Afghanistan, clearly not as important to the future of the Middle East as Iraq, why can't we do it in Iraq? There may be reasons, but nobody out of the White House is telling us what the difference is and why what works in country A won't work in country I.

  • 10:16:19


  • 10:16:19

    BENSAHELI do think that the administration is going to have to relook at strategy. They said yesterday, some press reports, that they're committed to their strategy. I think they'll be thinking about that very hard in the coming days. I think we're probably likely to see some loosening of the restrictions on the forward air controllers that can help make a difference in calling in U.S. airstrikes and we may see some additional training efforts.

  • 10:16:41

    BENSAHELBut even, you know, Senator Graham is the one who's called for 10,000 U.S. troops. Even Senator Graham, who has said that for a long time, that is not just in response to Ramadi, has called for those to be trainers and largely working with forces not on the front lines, helping them in garrison to improve their capabilities before they go out to fight, not the kind of working with them on the ground that the ambassador just mentioned.

  • 10:17:05

    BENSAHELSo even there, I think there are going to be limits to what we do, even if we revise elements of our military strategy, which I suspect we do because of this fundamental political and strategic problem.

  • 10:17:15

    PAGETom, what would be the reaction of the American public to the idea of sending more troops back to Iraq, do you think?

  • 10:17:23

    BOWMANWell, I don't know. I think -- I can't speak for the American public. I think polling has shown that people, American people, don't want to send more troops into the Middle East or anywhere to fight these wars. They want the local forces to do it. But, again, the local forces either can't do it or won't do it and so that's where you have a problem with the Shiite militias coming into a Sunni area.

  • 10:17:47

    PAGEWe're gonna take a short break. And when we come back, we'll first talk about the use of these Shiite militias coming back into a largely Sunni area, some of the risks it might entail and we'll take your calls and questions. Our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to Stay with us.

  • 10:20:00

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Tom Bowman, the Pentagon correspondent for NPR, Nora Bensahel, she's a distinguished scholar in residence at the School of International Service at American University and James Jeffrey, he's the Philip Solondz at The Washington Institute. He is a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey.

  • 10:20:28

    PAGEYou know, right before the break, I asked Tom how the American public would react to the idea of a growing U.S. military engagement in Iraq to fight ISIS. Let me read some of the comments we've gotten from our listeners. On the website, a comment, the situation is too far gone for U.S. intervention to do any good. We should withdraw all support and limit ourselves to supporting Gulf stability and stopping Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

  • 10:20:52

    PAGEAnd an email from Sara, who's writing us from Port Matilda in Pennsylvania. She writes, "every time I hear a discussion about Iraq, I'm reminded that we continue to confuse involvement with influence. For all of the years, blood and treasure wasted with our involvement in Iraq, we appear to have very little influence in improving matters there. I say stop the involvement, for we will never have influence, and spend that money domestically. I hear Amtrak could use some help."

  • 10:21:18

    PAGESo Ambassador Jeffrey, what's your view on what Americans would be prepared to support when it comes to this battle?

  • 10:21:26

    JEFFREYFirst of all, you listeners have a point, and we all, who do foreign affairs, have sympathy for those concerns. They see great sacrifices, great expenditures, and they don't see enough coming out of this. I would say you have to take the long view. All in all, our involvement in the world has been a good thing for most of the world, and it has been very important for American peace, prosperity and our values both home and abroad. So I'm not apologetic about us getting engaged.

  • 10:21:56

    JEFFREYThe problem of pulling out of Iraq and then putting all of our efforts into fending off Iran, or for that matter fending off Russia and the Ukraine, is that international security is indivisible. If you start picking and choosing where you're going to draw lines in the sand, nobody anywhere believes that their piece of sand is what you're going to defend next.

  • 10:22:17

    JEFFREYThis is a problem we have had since the very beginning of the Cold War, and it's very, very hard to shake. Therefore, you have to look at values, you have to look at global issues. When something like ISIS appears on the global scene, it's the job of us and a lot of other countries to either deal with this, or we return slowly to the world that saw World War I and World War II, and we don't want that in the nuclear area. We don't want that after 9/11, and that's why we're doing what we're doing.

  • 10:22:44

    PAGENora, we've now seen, with the rout of the Iraqi army in Anbar Province and Ramadi that there's been a call by the provincial council to call in Shiite militias. Now, the province is mostly Sunni. There's a lot of history of sectarian strife and violence between the Sunnis and the Shiites in Iraq. Are there risks to trying to get these Shiite militias to come back and help them retake the city?

  • 10:23:12

    BENSAHELThere are absolutely risks, and that's why the fact that the Sunni leadership has called for them to come in is such a sign of how desperate the situation is. You know, the risks of them coming in are largely fueling the sectarian conflict that underlies everything that's going on in Iraq. There are concerns that there will be reprisals from Shiite militias against Sunnis in the area. There have been some reports that that happened in Tikrit, although not as widespread as some people predicted afterwards.

  • 10:23:41

    BENSAHELBut I think most importantly what it does overall is it weakens all of this in Ramadi, and having to call in the Shiite militias fundamentally weakens the position of Prime Minister Abadi and makes it much, much more difficult for him to be able to credibly claim to be working with the Sunni community and helping them after the Sunni community itself feels that it needs to resort to this, after the Iraqi forces were not able to control the city.

  • 10:24:07

    BENSAHELI worry much more about - I should say I worry just as much about the political implications of everything that has just happened as much as the military and tactical issues.

  • 10:24:17

    PAGESo when you say the political implications, what could happen as a result?

  • 10:24:23

    BENSAHELI think that, you know, as Ambassador Jeffrey mentioned, the population in Ramadi has been trying to resist ISIS for a very long time. They've not gotten some of the support from the Iraqi government that they've wanted. On the other hand, they've also wanted limits to the government support because of the fears of the Sunnis - excuse me, the Shiites in the Iraqi Security Forces.

  • 10:24:41

    BENSAHELWhat we've basically just done, what has basically just happened, is that Sunnis who do not feel a particular loyalty or allegiance to ISIS no longer believe that the government is going to protect them, is going to help them out, and that makes it that much harder for them to agree to work with government forces to try to organize themselves and trust the government's promises.

  • 10:25:04

    PAGEYou know, it's hard to replay history, but if the Iraqi government had more aggressively helped the Sunni fighters who were trying to protect Ramadi, could they have held the city? I mean, is this a situation of their own making, Tom?

  • 10:25:19

    BOWMANWell, I mean, I was there back in 2006, '07 and '08 and at a time when they were supporting what was called the Sons of Iraq Program, former Sunni militants who were shooting at Americans, and Americans started paying them 300 bucks a month. It was a pretty strong program. It started working. But I remember back then, we were talking to the Marines and the Army officers who were running it, saying can this thing survive under the Shiite-led government, and most people way back then said probably not, they're going to turn their back on the Sunnis, you know, once the Americans leave. And that's precisely what happened. And can you put that back together again? I think that's a big question.

  • 10:25:57

    PAGENow, the Pentagon, which you cover every day, is expressing confidence publicly that Ramadi will be retaken. They describe this as kind of the natural ups and downs of an armed conflict.

  • 10:26:08

    BOWMANWell, the word they use is a setback. This is a setback. It's not good. There are ebbs and flows to this, we've said that all along. We've said all along it will take years. We're on the right path. The strategy is sound. So they've been using some of those cheery terms to, you know, I would guess put the best face they can on all of this.

  • 10:26:30

    PAGEIs it realistic to think that in the foreseeable future Ramadi will be regained?

  • 10:26:36

    BOWMANWell, we spoke with - NPR spoke with one of the officials in Anbar Province, and he estimated that it could take months before Ramadi is taken, retaken. So we don't have a sense when the offensive would start with the Shiite militias. So it's completely up in the air at this point.

  • 10:26:56

    PAGEWhat do you think, Ambassador Jeffrey? Is it - in the foreseeable future, will we see the city back in Iraqi government hands?

  • 10:27:01

    JEFFREYIt is possible. It depends on the kind of Shiite militias. They come in several flavors. The biggest problem are the ones who fought us back a decade ago, Kata'ib Hezbollah, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq and some of the others. They are definitely under Iran's thumb. They don't take orders from Iraqi government or Iraqi military.

  • 10:27:22

    JEFFREYNow, many of the other Shiite militias, while they have some personnel ties with people close to the Iranians, these people came forth when Grand Ayatollah Sistani called for all Iraqis to mobilize. Technically, Sunnis are part of this, too, although few answered that call, and those people tend to be somewhat better under the control of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi armed forces.

  • 10:27:44

    JEFFREYBut the key thing, as Tom said earlier, is you need a credible ground force that can fight and win. We had that in Tikrit a few months ago. It was a mix of various kind of forces with a lot of U.S. air force power, and we need to re-create something like that out in Ramadi. Without that, just like Fallujah, just like Mosul, the city will stay in the hands of ISIS, and that is a very bad thing.

  • 10:28:11


  • 10:28:11

    BENSAHELEven with credible ground forces from the Shiite militias coming in, this is going to be a very difficult military problem because defenders always have the advantage. It would have been much easier to keep ISIS from taking it in the first place than it will be to actually have to go in, go block by block in some cases and push them out. One of the things that we have seen already in the administration changing its words a little bit, but I think that this is very significant, is that in the battle for Tikrit, the United States would not provide airstrikes while the Shiite militias were in the city.

  • 10:28:42

    BENSAHELThey did provide airstrikes when the Shiite forces pulled back tactically. The U.S. then bombed, and then the ground forces of the Shiite militias went back in and were able to consolidate some of those gains. What we've heard from the administration in the past day or two is that they are saying that they will support, with airstrikes, any troops under the control of the prime minister.

  • 10:29:07

    BENSAHELBecause the prime minister has now officially requested the help of the Shiite militias, at the - and he did that at the request of the Sunni authorities or the Sunni leadership there, I think we have seen now we are opening the door to being willing to provide airstrikes in direct support of Shiite militias because technically we can say that they are under the control of the prime minister, his having requested them.

  • 10:29:30

    PAGEOn Monday, I interviewed Susan Rice, the national security advisor at the White House, and she said just that, that the administration was now prepared to provide support for any troops of any sort that were under the command of the central government, and she acknowledged that that represented some real risks looking ahead, that this was a change. I mean, for one thing, these Shiite militias are backed by Iran. Our relationship with Iran gets more and complicated, Tom.

  • 10:29:55

    BOWMANIt certainly does, and again, that's a distinction the Pentagon is making, and the White House. They will work with any Shiite militias, as long as they come under the government. But as we saw in Tikrit, I think it's kind of sometimes hard to figure out who is under the government control and who is doing it on orders from Iran.

  • 10:30:15

    PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation with their comments or questions. We'll go first to Paul, who's calling us from St. Louis, Missouri. Good morning, Paul.

  • 10:30:26

    PAULGood morning, thanks for taking my call.

  • 10:30:27

    PAGEYes, go ahead.

  • 10:30:28

    PAULI would like to propose that there is no military solution to this problem. Everybody wants to send troops or do airstrikes or whatever. You're not getting at the root of the problem. Basically this is all a tribal conflict. We finally start to begin to understand the difference between the Sunni and the Shiite, but it's not even that anymore. This is a set of Wahhabism that comes from Saudi Arabia, back from the days of King Fahd, and it's still alive and well.

  • 10:31:02

    PAULAnd our Saudi quote-unquote allies are funding this. If you get to the root of where the money's coming from, you cut off ISIS, and they can't fight anymore, they'll go home.

  • 10:31:13

    PAGEAll right, thanks very much for your call. Thoughts from our panel?

  • 10:31:16

    BOWMANNo, that's a good point. I was just talking with someone at the Pentagon yesterday who said we're trying to push our allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, to cut off financing to ISIS, to cut off fighters crossing their border and to cut off recruitment, and that's a work in progress. But clearly enough has not been done.

  • 10:31:31

    PAGENora Bensahel?

  • 10:31:33

    BENSAHELGetting to the root of the problem involves two things. The money is actually - that it may be getting from Saudi Arabia or other places is not essential to its survival anymore. There is a feature in the New York Times this morning and online that shows that where they're getting the sources of funding, and a lot of is through taxation, they call it taxation, it's really extortion, of people in the provinces, in the areas that they control.

  • 10:31:59

    BENSAHELIn terms of root causes of ISIS right now, as it affects Iraq, I think we're also, in terms of U.S. policy, going to have to start looking at the leadership bases in Syria in order to degrade them. We did have this very effective direct raid over the weekend. The news of that has gotten overshadowed by what happened in Ramadi and probably correctly so, but, you know, looking at degrading their capabilities, particularly in light of the setback in Ramadi, may require rethinking how we're letting ISIS have a sanctuary in Syria.

  • 10:32:30

    PAGEJim Jeffrey?

  • 10:32:31

    JEFFREYPaul has made one of the points that we hear over and over again, and it has an awful lot of truth in it, but it still needs to be challenged. That is, it's true that if you want to get at the root causes of all of these violent manifestations in the Middle East, you have to go into historical, cultural, religious and other elements. But the point is - let's take the Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam. That's been around for 300 years. At times, groups professing that brand of Islam have gone on the attack.

  • 10:33:07

    JEFFREYWe saw this with the Ikhwan about 100 years ago. We're seeing it now with ISIS. We saw a version of it with al-Qaeda. When they take on a military personality and start attacking people, the response isn't to scratch your head and wonder, gee, what can we do about this hundreds-of-years-old philosophy, it's to defeat it militarily. That doesn't mean it won't come back in some other form with some other group supporting it or identifying with it. What it does mean is you don't have a military challenge to stability in the entire region.

  • 10:33:37

    PAGEPaul, thanks so much for your call. I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, phone number is 800-433-8850. Or send us an email at Well, Nora mentioned the victory, I mean, victory isn't quite the right word, but the killing of a key -- what the administration described as a key ISIS leader on Friday, the capture of some material that may provide some intelligence, that may have some intelligence value. Tom, tell us how this happened, pretty daring rescue operation, actually.

  • 10:34:14

    BOWMANRight, they pushed out of Irbil and Iraq with Ospreys, with Blackhawk helicopters and also with little birds, attack aircraft, which took out a checkpoint by this -- it was an apartment complex they actually raided. They did a lot of rehearsals before they went in. They were after Abu Sayyaf, who as in charge of oil financing for ISIS. He put up a fight. He was killed along with about a dozen others.

  • 10:34:44

    BOWMANThey did grab his wife, who's an Iraqi, brought her back to Irbil, and the FBI is now questioning her. They believe besides the oil revenues and all that both of them were also involved in kidnapping and ransom. So they're trying to get a sense of what she knows. I heard she is talking but at this point not really saying too much.

  • 10:35:05

    BOWMANBut one thing I did learn is that they found, besides cell phones and hard drives and computers, they also found a lot of financial documents showing how much they made off oil, and it's in the tens of millions of dollars.

  • 10:35:18

    PAGEWow, and maybe it makes it easier to kind of combat that source of revenue if we have more information about it.

  • 10:35:21

    BOWMANExactly, we just talked about.

  • 10:35:24

    PAGENora Bensahel?

  • 10:35:24

    BENSAHELThese documents are probably the most important long-term effect of this important raid. An organization like ISIS will have succession plans for its key leaders being taken out because that's the obvious strategy that, you know, to pursue against them. But we've been able to use documents and intelligence like that in the past to gain a much better understanding of how groups operate and in some cases even the personal links that may enable us to track down other important officials, as well.

  • 10:35:55

    PAGEWell, there were some skeptics who questioned whether Abu Sayyaf was in fact a very important figure in ISIS. What do you know? Was he, in fact, central?

  • 10:36:02

    PAGEWell, someone I talked with said he's a medium to large figure. He's not one of the top four. He didn't have a bounty on his head. The reason they went after him is they had pretty good information of exactly where he was. So that's what made the raid possible. And it was a successful raid. But they don't have a sense of where the top leadership is.

  • 10:36:23

    PAGEBut, you know, Nora, you mentioned it was overshadowed by the fall of Ramadi. That's certainly, too, though, I remember the White House announcement that came out was pretty triumphant about this military operation but immediately swamped by other news. This has got to be tough for an administration trying to make its case that it's on the ball when it comes to the fight against ISIS.

  • 10:36:42

    BENSAHELAbsolutely. The raid, you know, when it hit the news over the weekend was really quite significant, getting a tremendous amount of attention, and it is an important element of the long-term struggle against ISIS, there's no question about that. But to have it -- have the fall of Ramadi come, you know, within 24 hours of that, again, has largely overshadowed that. You know, I feel bad in some ways for the administration spokespeople because they keep trying to come back to that, to use that as an example of, you know, we're having successes as well as we're having failures, but the two events that happened in such quick succession are not equivalent.

  • 10:37:16

    PAGEWe're going to take a short break, and when we come back, we'll continue our conversation. We'll take your calls, we'll read your emails. Stay with us.

  • 10:40:01

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Nora Bensahel. She's a distinguished scholar at American University. Tom Bowman, Pentagon Correspondent at NPR, and James Jeffrey. He's the former US Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. And Mr. Ambassador, we're talking about the raid, just before the break, we were talking about the raid that succeeded in killing an ISIL commander in Syria. What do you make of that raid?

  • 10:40:32

    JEFFREYWell, it was obviously very successful, but the question is why don't we do more of these? If we do them, if we're not worried about the diplomatic consequence of operating in Syria and we're willing to take the risk to the lives of our heroic special operators, why can't we do this more often? In Iraq, we did dozens of these raids every night. And it's what wore down the Al-Qaeda elements at that time into a mere shadow of where they had been a few years earlier.

  • 10:41:03

    JEFFREYIf we can do this and do this successfully, let's keep doing it. It has a huge effect, if you keep doing it on a sustained basis.

  • 10:41:09

    PAGESo Tom, why don't we do it more often?

  • 10:41:12

    BOWMANWell, I asked somebody that when they said, hey, we found cell phones, hard drives, computers, all this information. I said, well, are you going to do more raids and they said, well, it takes a while to develop the information and then stage raids. So, they said wait and see.

  • 10:41:24

    PAGEIs the problem that, Nora, there isn't good enough intelligence to know who to raid?

  • 10:41:29

    BENSAHELI certainly think that's part of the problem and that's the key difference between, you know, the situation we're in now and what we were when we had large ground troops on the -- ground forces on the ground in Iraq. Getting that intelligence is very difficult.

  • 10:41:41

    PAGELet's go to Sarasota, Florida and hear from another listener. Augie, hi. You're on the air.

  • 10:41:47

    AUGIEGood morning. I've called before. I do a show called "The Morning Edge." We've talked about this, the man Paul that called earlier hit it on the head. This whole business of Al-Qaeda, ISIS and so forth is being financed, initiated, by Saudi Arabia. And it's not just a cultural phenomenon as the Ambassador talked about in a coffee shop conversation. This is a serious effort to undermine the West.

  • 10:42:12

    PAGEAugie, thanks so much for your call. Mr. Ambassador.

  • 10:42:13

    JEFFREYI disagree. This is not financing by the Saudi government. The Saudi government itself feels threatened by these people. Not enough, and here's Augie right, to try to crack down on the Wahabi elements in the culture and it's deeply -- this, our form of Sunni Islam is deeply embedded in many, many people in Saudi Arabia. It is these people, private citizens, and some religious leaders, who are providing both inspirational rhetorical support and financial support to ISIS and to Al Qaeda before it. If we could stop it, we would, but we can't.

  • 10:42:51

    PAGELet's talk to Cecil. He's calling us from Detroit, Michigan. Hi Cecil.

  • 10:42:56

    CECILHi. I just wanted to make a comment from one of your -- I heard one of your panelists earlier talking about how the US has had a positive influence throughout the world with its engagement, and I have to agree with that, to some extent. I think that's true everywhere but the Middle East. I think if you look at the Middle East, we're supporting a military Kunta, which took over Egypt. We're supporting a royal family in Saudi which just invaded a neighboring country. And we're not supporting probably one of the most democratic countries in the Middle East, Iran.

  • 10:43:25

    CECILYou know, it has relatively free and fair elections on a regular basis. And I think if we take a step back and look at our engagement in the Middle East, critically, we'd realize that further engaging, especially militarily in Iraq, simply isn't the answer.

  • 10:43:38

    PAGEAll right, thanks very much for your call. Any comments from our panel?

  • 10:43:43

    JEFFREYUnlike Egypt, Israel, or Saudi Arabia, it is the avowed purpose of the Iranian government to expand its influence by a variety of military, paramilitary, asymmetrical, ideological and other means. I'd question how democratic it is, but that isn't the point. There is no truly democratic nation in the Middle East, other than Israel or Turkey. The problem is, there are security concerns that go to vital US interests, be they oil, be they the war on terror, be they weapons of mass destruction, be they our alliance system. And right now, ISIS and Iran, between them, are tearing this whole thing down.

  • 10:44:23

    PAGECecil, thanks so much for your call. Well, Nora Bensahel, let's talk about the situation in Libya. Does the Islamic State have a foothold now, not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in Libya?

  • 10:44:36

    BENSAHELThe US government has described the role of ISIS in Libya as having an operational capacity. Which means that there is a presence there, that they can do things, they can conduct attacks and they can destabilize, you know, the very difficult security situation that’s going on there. The main problem in Libya is that you don't have a government. You have two dueling governments in waiting, really going on and fomenting domestic instability. ISIS has been able to get a foothold in there.

  • 10:45:05

    BENSAHELThe -- what ISIS has done, largely, outside of Syria and Iraq has mostly had groups come to it to try to be affiliated with its brand. Because ISIS is a very powerful brand in the Islamic extremist community. But it looks like Libya is one of the first places overseas where there's really been a direct ISIS role.

  • 10:45:26


  • 10:45:26

    BOWMANI can't talk about Libya, but I can talk about Afghanistan. I just got back from there. And you are seeing some ISIS inroads in Afghanistan. In Helmand Province and also eastern Afghanistan. Al Baghdadi has named some representatives in there and what they're seeing now is they're calling it rebranding. Someone who used to fight for the Taliban saying, well, I haven't seen my commander in months if not years. He's over in Pakistan. I'm gonna start working for these ISIS guys. They're starting to see money flow in to Afghanistan to pay for some of these ISIS fighters.

  • 10:45:59

    BOWMANThey have not seen anything operational yet. It's kind of a rebranding, but they're watching it closely.

  • 10:46:04

    PAGEWhen ISIS takes over a city like Ramadi. I was reading this morning that they've already set up two Islamic courts to keep order. That they're going door to door with a list of names and killing people who are believed to be supporters of the other side. Do they set up an actual operational government in the places that they've taken control of? Ambassador Jeffrey.

  • 10:46:27

    JEFFREYAbsolutely. They will seize, for example, the pension payments of the former Iraqi civil servants and retired military. They have courts, they have something equivalent to a police force. But it is all set up maximize its power and its control over the population. They try to observe the population 24/7 to see who might be secretly sending information to Baghdad and to the Americans.

  • 10:46:55

    PAGELet's talk to Camsen, who's calling us from Houston, Texas. Camsen, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:47:03

    CAMSENThanks for taking my call. I have a (unintelligible) , I mean, I want to criticize a lot of people who are so quick to jump on this President, to criticize him for his role. Now, a lot of blame can go around. Start with (unintelligible) , number one. Secondly, if the past President of Iraqi has not even united his military yet, the Sunnis are not involved.

  • 10:47:34

    PAGEAll right Camsen, thanks so much for your call. You know, we've gotten an email that I think is making a similar point. Mike has written us from Westminster, Maryland. He writes, I am sick and tired of everyone blaming President Obama for the situation in Iraq. President Bush negotiated the withdrawal agreement and Maliki would not agree to a status of forces agreement to keep US troops in the country. The war was a mistake to begin with and was started by Bush. Nora, what do you think of the comments we've gotten and we've got some other listeners who have tried to make a similar point.

  • 10:48:02

    BENSAHELYeah, my own view is that Mike is right in terms of some of the ultimate issues, but maybe even doesn't go back far enough. I think a lot of the issues that we're seeing today are a direct result of the decision to go into Iraq and to try to put in a democratic government there that was going to be Shiite led. I think that set into motion a tremendous number of dynamics about alienating the Sunni community. We made, absolutely, the United States made a tremendous number of mistakes on how it executed things on top of that that increased the grievances of the Sunni community.

  • 10:48:38

    BENSAHELBut basically, what we unleashed by going in there, whether you think that was right or wrong, the fact is that having gone in there, we've unleashed a lot of sectarian conflict and tensions among the three populations there that are still playing out today.

  • 10:48:54

    PAGEAmbassador Jeffrey, did you want to comment on that?

  • 10:48:56

    JEFFREYThe point is obviously correct, but it's very important not to partisan about this, although there's a tremendous temptation, at least by both parties. For example, this whole idea that we could change Iraq fundamentally came about in the late 1990s. The Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which basically signed us up officially for our regime change. Now, President Clinton correctly didn't do too much about it, but in a post-9/11 climate, there was tremendous pressure. It wasn't just something that President Bush came up with one day.

  • 10:49:33

    JEFFREYThere was tremendous pressure from various sides to do something dramatic in the Middle East to, quote, fix it. And there was a long term view that we could somehow fix Iraq that was shared by many people in the Congress, in the think tank and academic worlds. And alas, it had no basis in reality, as we saw only after we went in.

  • 10:49:54

    BENSAHELI agree that it's not particularly useful, at this point, to, you know, reopen the debate about whether we should have gone in or shouldn't have gone in. Reasonable people are going to disagree about that, but I do think that it's very important to understand the dynamics that were set in motion, because they are still affecting the set of strategic choices that the United States needs to make today.

  • 10:50:11

    PAGEWe're getting, you know, very strong points of view, as you can imagine, from our listeners. Here's an email from John who writes us from Louisville, Kentucky. He writes, unless we want ISIS eventually knocking on the doorstep of Europe, it is passed time for the US to build a coalition of global powers to confront this rising threat to all of mankind. Which, like it or not, is going to require boots on the ground and a long term commitment. But then we also got this email from Mike.

  • 10:50:36

    PAGEWho's writing us from Maryland. He writes, quote, as a taxpayer and a father of a US Marine, I have two simple questions for those Republicans calling for US ground troops in Iraq. Are they willing to send their own sons and are they willing to raise taxes to pay for it? So Tom, it's clearly a debate that people feel strongly about and Americans are divided.

  • 10:50:58

    BOWMANNo, you're absolutely right. I mean, look at the -- what we've seen just in the past 10 years, the number of killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some look at this as really not a national issue, not a national threat. Some say that ISIS is, of course, now a regional threat. Is it a serious threat to the United States? People debate that. Some people say it's not that much of a threat to the United States, a growing threat. So, you can understand how some people would say, I don't want to pay for US troops to go in or I don't want my son, a US Marine, to go in. You can understand that.

  • 10:51:30

    PAGEHow does -- the administration has had a big, put a big priority on the negotiations with Iran, the international negotiations with Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions. Ambassador Jeffrey, does this battle in Iraq affect that effort, and does the desire, by the administration, to reach a deal with Iran affect what it's doing in Iraq and against ISIS?

  • 10:51:53

    JEFFREYFirst of all, it affects it because there's only so many hours in the day. There are only, frankly, so many classified conference rooms in the White House. And when you're dealing with multiple crises, it's hard to do a good job on any of them. That's from my own experience working there. And Iran is a huge and very tricky issue, as is ISIS. Secondly, the administration has a sort of commonality of interest in Iraq, with Iran, to keep the country united and to keep ISIS down. On the other hand, the future of Iraq, and certainly the future of the region, is not a shared vision with Iran.

  • 10:52:35

    JEFFREYSo, we have to be very, very careful. This is just one other complicating factor of the many the administration has to look at when trying to decide what it's going to do now. And regardless of what it says publicly, it's trying to decide now what, if anything, it should do.

  • 10:52:48

    PAGEIs the world more complicated and dangerous now than before? Sometimes, I think you see the news and you think, the world is just a mess. Or is this the way things always are? Nora, what do you think?

  • 10:53:00

    BENSAHELI do think the number of challenges in the world right now is quite high. It all depends what your baseline is for comparison, though, right? I mean, you know, the existential level of threat today is nothing like it was at the height of the Cold War with, you know, the prospect of nuclear Armageddon. So, compared to that, yes, things are much better today. But of course, that's not the only yardstick to measure it by. I think what is so difficult today, from a US strategic interest point of view, is that we don't have anything that rises to that level of severe threat to the United States.

  • 10:53:33

    BENSAHELBut there are some very significant US interests at stake. And there are many different ones that are emerging and shifting around the world and it's very difficult to get a handle on all of those, because they all affect each other as well, and that's why it seems so complicated, in addition to the fact that there are these number of challenges. The second and third order effects are very difficult to figure out.

  • 10:53:53

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Tom, how long have you covered the Pentagon?

  • 10:53:58

    BOWMANLet me see, since '97, first for the Baltimore Sun and then NPR.

  • 10:54:03

    PAGEAnd so how does this look to you in terms of the demands on the Pentagon? Is it an easier time compared to some earlier areas a more complicated one?

  • 10:54:12

    BOWMANOh, I think it's definitely a more complicated time. If you look at two wars in the past decade, and, you know, also humanitarian issues like Nepal, the Pentagon's very busy. And it's very difficult. And sometimes, you'll have an administration that says, okay, we're trying to achieve X, you know, we want to do this. And the Pentagon will say, well, here are the options. You can do X, Y, and Z. And they're like, well, you know, we don't want to get too involved.

  • 10:54:39

    BOWMANAnd so you're left, the Pentagon's left, well, exactly what are you trying to achieve here? So, it's very difficult for a military to figure out what the politicians want done. So, I think that's -- we're in that situation right now.

  • 10:54:51

    PAGEHere's an email from Joseph. He writes, would the Pan-Arab force that President Obama and Gulf leaders discussed last week be operational in time to be used in Anbar? I feel balancing Shiite militias with a Sunni Arab force may help in swinging over those Sunni Iraqis still on the fence. What do you think about that, Ambassador Jeffrey? Is this a realistic prospect?

  • 10:55:09

    JEFFREYIt's a good idea, but I don't think it's a realistic prospect. It would run into diplomatic problems with the largely Shia and even Kurdish Parliament in Baghdad, but more importantly, that's not a real force. They have air interoperability, thanks in large part to us, in conducting bombing raids, be they in Yemen, be they in Syria. But the ability to put troops on the ground and to coordinate together is extremely difficult. It's extremely hard to do. I did it for eight years before I was a diplomat, as a soldier.

  • 10:55:38

    JEFFREYAnd it's not something that a force like this can undertake without a lot of training and experience that they don't have against a force like ISIS.

  • 10:55:46

    PAGENora Bensahel, you know, we think about Ramadi. It's just 70 miles outside of Baghdad. Is it possible that Baghdad itself could be threatened by ISIL?

  • 10:55:56

    BENSAHELIt is possible someday. I don't think that the fall of Ramadi necessarily increases those chances yet. You know, the situation is very fluid and we don't know what will happen, but those 70 miles actually make a big difference, in terms of the population that is there. In terms of the demographics, and particularly in terms of the willingness of the Iraqi Security Forces to fight and defend the capital.

  • 10:56:19

    PAGETom, what worries most the US commanders in looking at this battle?

  • 10:56:24

    BOWMANIn Iraq?

  • 10:56:26

    PAGEIn Iraq.

  • 10:56:26

    BOWMANIn Iraq. I would say Baghdad falling, but I don't think that's going to happen. You have some of the better Iraqi forces around Baghdad. You have a lot of Americans in Baghdad, as well. The United States, I don't think, would ever let that happen. There would be a lot more air strikes and other efforts, I believe, before they got close to Baghdad.

  • 10:56:46

    PAGEAnd Ambassador Jeffrey, let's give you the last word. What do you think?

  • 10:56:49

    JEFFREYI think that's correct. However, it's interesting that much of the best elements, as Tom said, of the Iraqi Army, are held down in Baghdad. Much of the best Peshmerga elements are held down in Kirkuk. This is what ISIS does. It's how they're strategy is successful. By threatening major areas, they get most of the forces on the defensive in those couple of areas while they run amuck in much of the rest of Iraq, which is what we just saw.

  • 10:57:21

    PAGEJim Jeffrey, Nora Bensahel and Tom Bowman. Thanks so much for joining us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:57:27

    BOWMANYou're welcome.

  • 10:57:27

    BENSAHELThank you.

  • 10:57:27

    JEFFREYYou're welcome. Thank you.

  • 10:57:29

    PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.

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