Last July Diane spoke with Financial Times columnist Edward Luce about his book, "The Retreat of Western Liberalism." A year later, we have invited him back for an update.
Guest Host: Derek McGinty
In a speech two years ago at West Point, President Barack Obama laid out what has come to be known as the “Obama Doctrine” for fighting terrorism: aiding other countries militarily without leading the fight. This week, in what many say is the ultimate test of that strategy, U.S. special operations forces began assisting Iraqi troops in their battle to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants. In Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia, American troops are also aiding government forces, conducting airstrikes and other operations against Islamist insurgents. Guest host Derek McGinty and guests discuss where and how U.S. troops are being deployed in the fight against terrorism around the globe.
- James Kitfield Contributing editor, National Journal; senior fellow, Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress; author of "Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies and Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing the Americans Way of War"
- Andrew Tilghman Pentagon bureau chief, Military Times
- Courtney Kube National security producer, NBC News
MR. DEREK MCGINTYThanks for joining us. I'm Derek McGinty, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She is traveling to Los Angeles today, where she'll receive a lifetime achievement award from the International Women's Media Foundation. The battle to retake the city of Mosul, Iraq, from Islamic state militants is now underway, and American troops are providing significant support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces but not fighting the fight themselves. Now this is just one of several countries around the world that the U.S. is assisting in the fight against Islamist militants.
MR. DEREK MCGINTYJoining me now in the studio to talk about the battle for Mosul and similar campaigns in Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia, James Kitfield of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, Courtney Kube of NBC News and Andrew Tilghman of the Military Times. Now we'll be taking your comments, your questions and other thoughts throughout the hour. Call us at 800-433-8850. And you can send us email at email@example.com, and of course Facebook and Twitter are there for you, as well. Welcome to all three of you.
MS. COURTNEY KUBEThank you.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood to be here.
MCGINTYGood to have you here in the studio with me. James, I'll start with you. James, the fight to take Mosul back from ISIL or ISIS, whatever you want to call it, is a very big deal, but how did we get here?
KITFIELDWell, we got here because of sort of two events. We pulled all our troops out of Iraq in 2011. Most of President Obama's top advisors thought that was probably premature, but the Iraqis were being very stroppy about the conditions under which we would be allowed to stay, so -- and the second thing that happened was the Syrian civil war, and what we've learned after more than a decade and a half of this kind of struggle is that Syria was always going to create an ideal sort of ground for -- which was the terrorist group that was al-Qaeda in Iraq to sort of resurge and regenerate itself.
KITFIELDAnd that's exactly what it did, came back in Syria first, same basic cast of characters as al-Qaeda in Iraq, a lot of these guys. Al-Baghdadi himself, we had him arrested in Iraq back in the mid-2000s. He was part of al-Qaeda in Iraq. And they just got so strong that they launched this incredible offensive summer of 2014, captured large swaths of Iraq, Mosul, you know, basically all the Sunni areas of Iraq, Fallujah, Tikrit, Ramadi.
KITFIELDAnd it has two capitals. It calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and it has a capital in Syria, which is Raqqa, has a capital in Iraq, which is Mosul. So now the battle has begun to recapture Mosul. So now the battle has begun to recapture Mosul. We understand that -- and have also learned these groups cannot be allowed to have large territories to plots. We've seen all the plots in Europe, et cetera. That just cannot be allowed to happen. So this is a very big thing. We have to take Mosul back from them.
MCGINTYI just want to go back to that decision you mentioned in '11 to take the troops out of Iraq. The President has said I did it because they wouldn't make the deal to allow us to protect our own forces. How much of it was that, and how much of it was the fact that this administration just wanted out of Iraq?
KUBEIt was a combination of both. So if you look at right now, back in 2011, there were -- the numbers were kind of all over the lot for how many the U.S. might leave in Iraq, but at one point the number was down to, like, 3,500 American troops. There's over 5,200 authorized to be there right now, and there's more than that who are actually there on the ground. They don't have an immunity from the parliament, which is exactly what the U.S. was saying that they needed at the time.
KUBEWhat they have instead is a diplomatic note that allows them the immunity but does not -- but they never had to go to parliament about it. So the U.S. also -- I mean, Obama campaigned, of course, in 2000, in his first campaign, about getting U.S. troops out of Iraq. So that was part of it, as well.
MR. ANDREW TILGHMANYeah, I don't recall in 2011 the Pentagon being too aggressive about opposing the idea that the U.S. really needed to have that kind of status of forces agreement to protect service members. I tracked it pretty close at the time. But again, there was, underneath all that, the politics and the fact that clearly the White House would prefer to go ahead and wrap things up at the time, and that was a big factor.
MCGINTYAll right, so now we're at where we are, and we need to, as you say, to get the -- get Mosul back under control. This is a fight that, from what I see and read and understand, the good guys are likely to win. When I say the good guys, our side, likely to win.
KITFIELDYeah, we are likely to win. It would be almost inconceivable that we would allow the Iraqis to fail now because this is such a big deal. This battle has been two years in the making, and it's not the first time. We have spent the last two years training up Iraqi security forces. We have killed an estimated 40,000 ISIS fighters in the last two years with our air power in raids and with the Iraqi security forces that were enabling there, killed 120 of their fighters. So it's very -- you know, we've seen them retake Tikrit. They retook Ramadi, they retook Fallujah.
KITFIELDWe were impressed by the way that they moved up to surround Mosul. So yes, I anticipate we'll win this. The question is how ugly of a win will it be. Will it -- you know, how many people will be displaced? There's a million-plus civilians in Mosul. It's a big city. The Shiites after Ramadi, the Shiite militias that are part of this coalition committed more than 1,000 atrocities. So we've been using our leverage to try to keep them away from population centers as they are liberated.
KITFIELDAnd how much of the city gets destroyed? Because...
MCGINTYWell that was a big question, I mean, do we have to destroy the city in order to save it kind of a thing.
KUBESo there's some -- there's two schools of thought here right now. One, if you look back to what happened in Ramadi just recently, much of the city was destroyed. And I think that the Iraqis and the U.S. and the coalition are very conscious of that, and they are hoping that that doesn't happen again. The reality is ISIS has been dug in to Mosul for two years. There are all these, you know, stories that are starting to come out of there of them booby-trapping every little thing in buildings, down to desks in schools and how they've set up -- they have snipers everywhere, and they have -- they've set up entire buildings to explode with booby-traps and whatnot.
KUBESo I think there is -- there's been some reporting out of the region that one of the reasons that the western flank of Mosul has not been closed off by the Iraqis is because they're hoping that some ISIS fighters will leave, and they'll move closer towards Tal Afar. It will make them a target when they're on the roads, moving, obviously. So far they haven't seen a ton of that. They've seen some drips and drabs, several hundred probably total, many of them are family members of ISIS fighters, as well, who have been leaving. It makes them a target, though, for airstrikes when they're -- when they're on the road, and they know that.
KUBEBut it would make it easier for the eventual clearing. I think one -- this is starting to look like ISIS has made a conscious decision to sort of give up the eastern part of Mosul. It sits on a river. The city is on two sides of a river. It looks like they're making a conscious decision to just give up the eastern side to move to the western side across the river, and then they can do what we've been before, they blow up bridges, they cut off access to the city, and then they fight there, they dig in and fight there.
MCGINTYNow we are getting reports out of Fox News that al-Baghdadi himself, the ISIS leader, is holed up in Mosul. Will that change the calculation at all Andrew?
TILGHMANWell, I think it may just in terms of encouraging the core supporters to stay there and keep up the fight. But I do think that as this military operation goes on, we're going to continually be talking about what happens afterwards, since, as James said, the victory is somewhat inevitable in some form. But it's really unclear as to, you know, what kind of shape the city's going to be in, how many civilians are going to flee and really who's going to run this city, which is the second-largest city in Iraq. You know, who's going to be the mayor of the city? That's entirely unclear.
MCGINTYBut there are 5,000, as you mentioned, American troops on the ground. How much jeopardy are they in as the fighting will intensify?
KUBESo, I mean, the reality is the front lines are so fungible in this fight, not just Mosul but in Iraq, in Syria and frankly in many of the places that U.S. troops are right now, have a presence. The ones who are arguably in the most jeopardy right now are the ones who are close to Mosul. There's a U.S. logistics base south of the city called Qayyarah, Key West. There's also 100 to 200 who are advisors with the Iraqis. They're out with the Iraqi counterterror forces, the Peshmerga, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and some of the conventional ISF.
KUBEThey are more forward. They're not on a solid base. They are -- they're moving forward with the headquarters element so sort of the leadership of the Iraqis as they move forward. But the front line continues to move forward. So basically the Iraqis with U.S. air support and coalition air support, they keep pushing the forward line closer and closer to Mosul, and then the Iraqi troops with the U.S. move further and further. It's a relatively small number when you consider the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq, 100 to 200, but it's a presence that exists, and they may be, you know, several miles back from the quote-unquote forward line, but they're still in jeopardy.
KUBEWe saw a Navy SEAL killed a couple months ago. He was three or four miles back from the fighting, you know, and ISIS fighters pushed VBI -- a vehicle-borne IED through the front line, they used bulldozers, it was this, you know, coordinated attack, and he was killed even though he was well back from the front line.
KITFIELDWe also have joint special operations commands, hunter-killer teams, operating. So they're doing the kind of raids that we've come -- we've become very familiar with, Delta Force, et cetera. And those guys are on the tip of the spear. So I mean there's -- it's not like the 5,000-plus soldiers are not in any danger, but they're not -- they're not leading the front lines other than these Special Forces raid teams. They're not on the front lines. They're usually at the battalion level, headquarters level, bringing in U.S. airpower, advising and assisting command and control, the kinds of things that the Iraqis have always struggled with and that we do very well.
MCGINTYDo you think the Iraqi forces are up to snuff, up to the job in this case?
KITFIELDI actually do. When I was a there a month ago with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we talked to the Iraqis. They have been very impressed that they have come along. Their counterterrorism force, which operates in tandem with JSOC, is probably the best in the Arab world. I mean, they are -- and they will be the shock troops. They were the shock troops in Ramadi, they were the shock troops in the battle of Fallujah. They'll be the shock troops in the battle for Mosul.
KITFIELDThey're very good. The Iraqi security forces have come a long way.
MCGINTYThey have, if what you say is true, because I recall stories of them breaking and running when they were first being trained years ago.
KITFIELDRight, right. No, we've had two years to sort of build them back up.
MCGINTYAll right, James Kitfield is contributing editor for the National Journal and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Courtney Kube is national security producer for NBC News. And Andrew Tilghman is Pentagon bureau chief at the Military Times. I'm Derek McGinty, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show.
MCGINTYWelcome back to the Diane Rehm Show. I'm your guest host today, Derek McGinty, and joining me here in the studio, James Kitfield, contributing editor for the National Journal, Courtney Kube of NBC News and Andrew Tilghman of the Military Times. We're discussing the Obama Doctrine and what it means for the fight against terrorism worldwide. Andrew, I'll start with you in this segment. What exactly is the Obama Doctrine? Has this been defined? And how will it play out in Mosul, do you think?
TILGHMANWell, I think it's a little hard to define. I'm sure that historians will debate that. But one key pillar of it is just that Obama has been very reluctant to put troops in harm's way. And he's constructed a lot of his policies around the idea of keeping troops out of the country if at all possible and away from the front lines where possible, and I think what you're seeing in Mosul is really going to be the biggest test yet of that, of whether and how successful the U.S. can be with working through these local forces and only putting a very, very small number of U.S. troops at the tip of the spear but having several thousand behind them providing logistics support and intelligence support.
TILGHMANAnd I think that how well Mosul goes in the next few weeks is going to be a really interesting indicator of, as Obama gets ready to leave office, of how that's really working out.
MCGINTYCritics on the other side have said that this amounts to leading from behind, not taking charge of the situation as they'd like the U.S. to do. What do you say?
KUBESo the military and the administration will tell you over and over and over that they are in support of some indigenous force on the ground in all of these cases of U.S. troops who are fighting militants in that region, whether it's fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia, whether it's fighting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, whether it's fighting ISIS in Libya. They make a point of saying that they are in support. Specifically when you talk about this Mosul operation, you can't get through, you know, one briefing without them saying it, you know, over and over and over that they are desperate not to have an American face on any of these conflicts, and they are desperate not to get embroiled in another ground war in these areas.
KUBEThey learned the lessons of Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and from frankly Afghanistan, where the U.S. still has nearly 10,000 troops, where they will continue to have more than 8,000 troops when Obama leaves office in a few months and frankly where we just, as we were literally going on the air this morning, we learned that one American service member was killed, one was -- a civilian was killed and several were wounded today in an attack in Afghanistan, the war that no one even talks about anymore.
KITFIELDI agree with everything that's been said about what -- and, you know, President Obama has not really come out and sort of described his own doctrine, other than to say that, you know, he wants to nation-build here at home, and he's very reluctant about putting boots on the ground. So that sort of leaves us with a template. We're seeing not only in Iraq today and the battle of Mosul, but we've been seeing it for years in Somalia, where we've been supporting using the same sort of skill set that we're using -- we're backstopping the Iraqis with to backstop an African Union force in Somalia.
KITFIELDWe're doing the same thing in Afghanistan. It's marrying what we do really well, which is precision air power, what they call IS&R, which is intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, think drones, you know, spying on people, and logistics, command and control, things that we can do pretty much in the background mostly and marry that to proxy forces on the ground who have a larger stake in the fight, and we, you know, get less service members killed.
MCGINTYCouldn't you make the argument that the United States has been too cautious, that they drew a rhetorical red line in the sand in Syria but then did nothing to back it up, that you allowed Gaddafi to fall in Libya and encouraged it but then did nothing to form a new government there or very little. Have we been too cautious?
KITFIELDThat criticism, and that is made all the time, and it's a kind of dynamic tension. Like I said, I think there's a pretty valid criticism we pulled out of Iraq too fast because we were no longer able to do these things even in the background that we -- a 10,000 force, you know, force in Iraq would've been able to do. So yeah, if, you know -- I think the Obama administration would say, look, we learned the lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan. So you put large combat forces on the ground, they're very -- those kinds of conflicts are very hard to get out of. We're a decade and a half into this fight. So yes, that criticism is out there, and we know their response.
MCGINTYAll right, let's look at a couple of emails we've got from viewers. Jarod (PH) on the DR Show website, says, "if there are U.S. casualties during the taking of Mosul, I for one am going to be very angry and upset. Enough of the shoulder-to-shoulder stuff. The Iraqi government and military are not our allies in any meaningful sense of the word." Does he have a point?
TILGHMANYeah, I think there's a pretty valid point there. There's a real question about the government in Baghdad and Prime Minister Abadi and where his loyalties lie. I mean, he has been working with the Americans to some degree, but he also -- Iran has a lot of influence over his particular government, and I think that's one of the other reasons why we've been so cautious. We tend to look at this from a very Washington perspective about, you know, Obama not wanting to put troops on the ground.
TILGHMANBut from a Baghdad perspective, you have -- Abadi is trying to balance the sort of U.S. influence versus the Iranian influence, and the Iranians don't want tens of thousands of American troops in Iraq, either. So when any -- when anyone would even raise that idea, there are people close to Abadi that are going to say hey, that's a bad idea, let's figure something else out.
MCGINTYLets' get to our phone lines at 800-433-8850. Bryce (PH) in Flint, Michigan, you're on the air, go ahead. Bryce, are you there?
MCGINTYThere you, Bryce, there you go.
BRYCEOkay, hi. Yeah, I just wanted to kind of echo some of the thoughts here about the ramifications of this military conflict. Just this morning I was listening to a former Sunni vice president of Iraq who was on the BBC, and he made the point, as has been made this morning on your show, that we can go in, and we can bomb, and we can take over the city of Mosul, but then what. I mean, that's the big question. I mean, we took over Fallujah how many times?
BRYCEYou know, we had three, I think, conflicts in Fallujah where we won Fallujah, we took Fallujah back, and, you know, it just returned to the same situation because the Shiite government is not willing to work with the Sunnis. And so what -- I mean, I keep hearing this same comment from people, but what is the answer? I mean, is there anyone who is actually working at making that central conflict, you know, made, you know?
MCGINTYAll right, well thank you for calling, Bryce. Courtney Kube, you were nodding all the time throughout his comment there.
KUBESo yeah, Bryce is -- this is one of the big lessons learned, that -- and this is where the U.S. really comes in, frankly, with their advice and their support to the Iraqis. What we saw, what James was explaining in 2011, when the U.S. left completely, what we really lost, the U.S. really lost, there was access and influence. They lost the ability to talk to then Prime Minister Maliki, to encourage him not to, you know, to stoke these sectarian tensions, which is exactly what he did after the U.S. left and exactly what frankly led to the Iraqi security forces folding in many cases, and it led to ISIS' ability to sweep through the country.
KUBESo now the U.S. is back, they have Prime Minister Abadi's ear. They're encouraging him to, you know, to operate in a more holistic manner. So on the ground level, just on, you know, day to day, this battle into Mosul right now, there are some Kurdish areas that are east of the city. Well, the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, they're the ones who pushed in through those. Once they get through the Kurdish area, the Iraqi security forces come in behind them, they start moving through the areas that are not Kurdish. They're being much more sensitive to the sectarian tension that exists.
KUBEAnd as far as, like, on a practical matter on the ground in Mosul, after it falls, which will be months from now realistically, but after it actually falls, there are 30,000 to 45,000 Iraqi security forces, a lot of -- many police who are ready to go in and hold the city from a practical standpoint on the ground who will actually be continuing to secure the area. But this again, as Bryce said, this is where U.S. advice really comes in and U.S. influence on the ground, to encourage them not to, you know, stoke these sectarians tensions as we saw so many times in the early 2000s.
TILGHMANYeah, I would even return to the idea that if there's going to be an Obama Doctrine, there's an element of what Courtney just said there in that you send small numbers of troops into these countries, and not only are you able to wield a little bit of military influence, but you have the ability to leverage some political influence, as well, and you have -- you get to know the people in these countries, and you get to know the political situations, and you have much more nuanced intelligence to deal with, and that's a big factor, especially when you go look at some of the other countries like Syria and Yemen and Libya, where we have far even less military operations. They're looking for those kinds of -- those political benefits.
KITFIELDI'd like to push back a little bit about this idea that we're just there to help Iraqis. You know, we have a national interest to make sure that ISIS and groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are not powerful. If you don't think we have an interest in that, look what happened in Orlando, look what happened in San Bernardino, look what happened in Brussels, look what happened in Paris, look at this huge immigration refugee crisis that is destabilizing our closest allies in Europe.
KITFIELDWe have a vital stake that -- I mean, I've often said if Iraq breaks apart, and it's not altogether clear to me that it will be a unified state, you know, the Kurdish region is already pretty semi-autonomous, but we do not have a stake to -- in making sure that it holds together. We do have a stake in making sure that the Sunni part is not ruled by the likes of ISIS. They will -- they are virulently anti-American, virulently anti-West, they are virulently violent, and they will destabilize all our allies in the region.
KITFIELDSo we -- it's in our interest. It's not because we're doing any favors for the Iraqis. And oh, by the way, Iraq finds itself in the situation in large part because we invaded it in 2003 and started this cycle.
MCGINTYYou know, I would note that well before he became vice president, Joe Biden said that Iraq was very likely to break up into three states, and everybody laughed and made fun of him at the time, but how prescient does he look now?
TILGHMANThe federation that looks like that is quite possibly how this comes out. And Syria, you know, how that ever gets puts back together is even harder to imagine.
MCGINTYAll right, let's -- I have another email, and you make the point about Mosul perhaps not being -- ISIS not being in charge of Mosul, but one writer says, Terri (PH) says, "how can Mosul be kept from becoming another Aleppo? In other words, if it takes months to get in there and take over the city, what happens to the people who stay?"
KITFIELDWell, I think that's a major question hanging over this whole operation as to how many people will stay and what will happen to them. I mean, I think it's -- it's a little bit different from Aleppo. I wouldn't expect to see the block-to-block fighting like we've seen there. But yeah, there's going to be some questions about, you know, how much of the Mosul area the Kurds control versus how much the Iraqi Arabs control, and I think that's likely to go on for a very long time, and we might find a situation where some remnants of ISIS thrives in that chaotic environment.
KITFIELDI mean, I think if we look at -- I like to look back at Ramadi, which -- in Anbar Province, which was supposedly cleared, and, you know, they declared victory about six months ago, but there are still airstrikes almost every day in the Ramadi area because there's just still a tangled mess there that ISIS can find its place in.
MCGINTYAndrew Tilghman is Pentagon bureau chief at the Military Times. Our other guests are Courtney Kube, national security producer at NBC News, and James Kitfield, contributing editor for the National Journal and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show.
MCGINTYAndrew, I'd like to turn back to you, and we were discussing the battle for Mosul. You say one of the most difficult things about this is going to be what you call tunnel fighting. What's that all about?
TILGHMANYeah, this has become a tactic over the past few years that we've seen ISIS and some other insurgent groups use. They literally dig tunnels underground that connect buildings, connect fighting positions, and they can store weapons down there, safely protected from airstrikes. And one of the reasons they do this, beyond the obvious ones, is that this has proven for the U.S. military to be a real, real challenge because we just simply don't have the technology that allows us to fly a plane over a city and see tunnels underground.
TILGHMANSo, you know, ISIS, there was tunnels found in Ramadi, there have been tunnels found in places in Syria, and it's widely believed that there's a lot of tunnels in Mosul, and that's just a big wildcard as the Iraqis and the U.S. move in there because they just don't know where they are, how they're set up and what will come of them.
MCGINTYSo that could extend the amount of time it takes to take Mosul.
KUBEAnd the tunnels aren't just used, as Andrew said, for movement of people, but they have been known to take explosives down there, underneath buildings, and use it as booby-traps and blow things up on the surface.
KITFIELDInsurgencies that are fighting a foe like us that has total air power superiority have often gone to tunnels. The Viet Cong did it back in Vietnam. I mean, it's what -- it's how you can get away from someone who's got superior airpower, and, you know, it's hard to bomb a tunnel.
MCGINTYWhat about allies in the region? What about Turkey? Tensions are high now between the United States and Turkey because of the coup and other issues. Are they still on our side?
KUBESo the Turks are still part of the coalition that's fighting ISIS. They are operating in Northern Syria, technically part of the coalition, but they are for all intents and purposes operating autonomously. They've -- and they have an interest in it. You know, they've got -- they share a long border with Syria. Until several weeks ago it was controlled largely by ISIS, and they went across the border. So it's interesting.
KUBEMore than a year ago, the U.S. started a train and equip program with some Syrians. They called themselves the Free Syrian Army. And it was largely a failure. They only trained, you know, a handful of them. Well those people went back across the border into Turkey. They've been working across the border with the Turks, and then now they came back across into Syria a few weeks ago, and they've actually been fighting with the Turkish military with, you know, airstrikes and artillery and whatnot, support from the Turks, and they've been clearing ISIS out of the area.
KUBEThey've moved down through Dabiq, which was an ISIS stronghold, it was sort of one of those more symbolic areas that ISIS held onto. The Turks and the Free Syrian Army, they pushed them right out of there recently.
MCGINTYSo is this a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend now?
KUBEIt's hard to say. The U.S. has one of the most, you know, important strategic air bases at Incirlik in Turkey, and so I -- it would be hard to envision a scenario where the U.S., particularly the military, wouldn't do everything possible to keep that ally, to keep that base there. You know, it's the unspoken secret that the U.S. has nuclear weapons there. Yeah, and that something after the coup in July that people in the U.S. were really concerned about, the potential for the security of those nuclear weapons.
KUBEWe've been continually assured that they're fine, that they're secure, they're continuing to do their security operations around it and whatnot, but I would find it difficult to envision any scenario where the U.S. wouldn't do everything in their power to keep Turkey as an ally, even if it's a tenuous one at best.
KITFIELDI think that's true. One reason, I think it's at least 50 percent of the reason Turkey's in Syria is to make sure that the Syrian Kurds don't make any more gains than they were. And the Syrian who are our ally, as are the Kurds in Iraq, the Peshmerga, were making lots of territorial gains, and that scares Turkey, which has been fighting a three-decades-long fight against the Kurds in Iraq, the PKK.
MCGINTYBecause in part the Kurds in their own country.
KITFIELDRight, so that's part of the tension, and that's why this thing has gotten so complicated. So we're -- Turkey's still our friend. It's partly there to keep the Kurds from making any more territorial gains, but Erdogan and Obama met on the sidelines of, I think it was a G20 summit recently, and Erdogan started talking about Turkish and U.S. cooperation in retaking Raqqa, and I've heard that that is something that the President would like, start that campaign before he leaves office.
KITFIELDSo it -- I think you might see a closer cooperation between us and Turkey in the Raqqa fight to come, which is maybe coming in a few months.
KUBEBut that's an impossible -- it puts the U.S. in this impossible position because the strongest fighters in Syria right now are the YPG, the Syrian Kurds, and the U.S. wants to support them, but the Turkish get mad at the U.S. when they support them. So they're in this impossible position of wanting to support both sides and...
MCGINTYIt's complicated. That's why we're having this conversation. The number here to join it is 800-433-8850, 800-433-8850. We're going to take a break and then take your phone calls. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show.
MCGINTYWelcome back to the Diane Rehm Show. I'm your guest host Derek McGinty. We're discussing the so-called Obama Doctrine. That is fewer boots on the ground as America tries to support fights in the Middle East that we, nonetheless, have an interest in. James Kitfield is here with me. He's Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Congress. Courtney Kube is with NBC News and Andrew Tilghman is with the Military Times. I promised you a phone call or two so let's get right to Joe Madison in -- Joe, rather, in Madison Heights, Virginia. Joe, you're on the air.
JOEThank you very much. My main concern is our, our young people on the ground trying to support these Iraqis who are heading for the fight of their lives. ISIS is not going to give up. This is going to be a fight to the death. These, these troops are heading into what will probably end up being a street fight, block by block, with all of the components that were left there before turned against us. And what's going to happen when we have to commit some troops. What's going to happen when during air support, the possibility of a pilot going down.
JOEAnd ISIS capturing our pilot and subjecting them to their execution. Are we going to have this administration waffle again and leave these Iraqis to fight for themselves? This administration has vacillated back and forth, back and forth, and we're heading back into this again, supposedly to support other people doing the fighting. I've got great misgivings about this.
MCGINTYAll right. Let's talk about it. You raise a lot of questions.
KITFIELDWell, on the downed pilot stuff, we have air search and rescue guys in Erbil, I saw them when I was there, ready to handle situations just like that. It -- this is not risk free for our troops. That should be stated out front. When these are -- you know, this is war. So, like I said, I think, and I'm pretty sure, convinced the Obama Administration is convinced also, that we have a stake in this. I don't see us pulling out in the middle of this battle if it doesn't go well in the initial weeks. I think we'll stick this through and see it through.
MCGINTYWill it be a block by block street fight as he describes?
KITFIELDIt could be. There's definitely a possibility with -- if they really consolidate and stand and fight, if there's these elaborate tunnel systems that we're concerned about. You could see a situation and I think that one of the big concerns underlying a lot of the US military policy is this issue of the will to fight. I mean, remember in 2014, Iraqi soldiers literally fled by the thousands and left hundreds if not thousands of Humvees and weapons storage units behind for ISIS to seize. So, there's really a question, I think, about how the Iraqis are going to fight.
KITFIELDAnd I think that's what a lot of the US operations are built around. I know one of the things we're prepared to provide for the Iraqis is Medivac Services. You know, if an Iraqi soldier gets severely wounded, there's sort of an unwritten policy that the US will get that guy out of there and get him to some proper American style healthcare. And I think that that, among a lot of other things, is designed to really just make sure that these guys push on into the fight.
MCGINTYThere are other countries involved in this so-called Obama Doctrine, as well. In Libya, for example, there are some US forces there as well. What are they doing? What are they expected to do?
KUBESo, it's funny, that's where we really are seeing a block by block, at this point, building by building fight, and it is the last few, literally, last few blocks that ISIS is controlling in a city called Sirte, which is sort of in between Benghazi and Tripoli. It's right in between the two, frankly, you know, opposing factions that are trying to run the country right now. What I don't know, Joe made the point about, about street by street fighting in Mosul. I think that is very possible and likely to be what happens when the Iraqis actually go into the city.
KUBEWhich is still days or weeks away. The question is will US advisors go with them and actually go into the city, and that's a question that we've not been able to have anyone answer. No one's been able to tell me that directly, whether they will or not. So will the US actually get involved in those street fights from anything other than airpower perspective? Probably not. If you look at Sirte in Libya, it's actually been very successful. The US has -- they were -- they conducted more airstrikes yesterday in Sirte.
KUBEAnd ISIS is really holed into these last few, literally, buildings. If you look at the intelligence from it, day to day, it will literally say like they got half of one building on Monday. They got the other half on Tuesday.
KUBEIt is, it is building by building in these last few blocks, but they're -- they've been successful.
MCGINTYAndrew, tell me...
TILGHMANAnd one of the things that they do at that point in the fight is they switch from sort of, you know, high altitude airstrikes to they bring in combat helicopters. Which allow them to be much more precise and if they're having a problem with a specific building, you know, the US is authorized to send in American pilots and American helicopters to literally hover over that building and blow it up. So I think that might be a key capability in (unintelligible).
MCGINTYHow concerned are we, or how concerned is the United States that Libya could begin to deteriorate to the level of a Syria?
KITFIELDWell, that's why, you know, Libya is fairly ungoverned. We've been trying to, along with the United Nations and our allies in NATO who've sort of destabilized by getting rid of Gaddafi bring some stability to Libya. But in the unstable sort of situation it was in, ISIS saw an opportunity. It was its biggest affiliate. They -- intelligence people have told me they think that's where ISIS thought it would go if it lost its foothold in Raqqa and Mosul. So they're trying to foreclose that.
KITFIELDAnd they're having some success, as Courtney says, so that's good news. But, you know, there's -- the fight goes on in Somalia as well, goes on in Afghanistan. There's still a concern in Pakistan, we're, we're, there's Yemen. I mean, we're -- I would encourage your listeners to think of this as a movement. You know, that I've been shown a slide by the Defense Intelligence Agency that shows in the last, you know, eight years, the number of affiliates that are either ISIS or Al-Qaeda have doubled.
KITFIELDAnd there's a lot of connective tissue between these people. They trade, trade craft, they go back and forth between each other. So that is why this, you know, what seems like these discreet battles that we're now conducting in seven different countries aren't really discreet battles. They're part of the same sort of conflict against these really virulently anti-Western Islamist militant groups.
MCGINTYYou know, that brings me to a question we get from Debra. An email, who says given what my -- what the guests here know of Secretary Clinton's national security postures and positions, do you think that once Mosul falls, a President Clinton would then try a similar effort in the second ISIS capital, Raqqa, in Syria?
KUBEYeah, she's been pretty clear that -- so, her strategy against ISIS is very similar to what President Obama is doing now with a little bit added in. She says she would have more airstrikes. She has said, and I've never heard anyone ask her about it, she said that she would arm the Kurds. The US is already providing weapons and equipment and support to the Iraqi Kurds. They are providing support to the Syrian Kurds, but not weapons. So, that goes back to our -- to Turkey, what we were talking about earlier, is how would Turkey respond to that, if the US is actually arming them?
KUBEI can't imagine that they would, but her strategy seems to be pretty similar. She has said several times that she would not put US boots on the ground in Iraq. Of course, there are already 5200 there. And, that she would not put them in Syria. There are up to 300 there at any given time doing very similar mission to what their counterparts are doing in Iraq, frankly.
TILGHMANYeah, I think that Hillary has sort of positioned herself as a lot like Obama, but maybe just a little bit more hawkish. And I think when you look at all these areas that we're talking about, you know, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia. They all, kind of, are, would offer a potential President Clinton an opportunity to escalate these things. And we could end up with one of these missions that seems very small now. You could see it really expanding under a Clinton administration.
MCGINTYWhat about Donald Trump's ideas? He says that ISIS would have to be defeated right away under his administration, but he's got a plan, but he won't tell you what it was because he doesn't want them to know what his plan is. Any hint though as to what he's got in mind?
KITFIELDYou know, it's, that's it. He wants to keep it a secret so we can't judge it. Then that -- it's a bit of a ridiculous position for a major party candidate to hold, that he's going to -- you know, he could certainly tip his hand about how aggressive he wants to be about -- he keeps telling us, believe me, they'll be defeated fast. Well, there's only, I mean, we're seeing the various options played out. You can put ground forces on there and do it fast. Or you can empower proxies that are much less capable and do it slow and ugly. And he hasn't tipped his hand on what he would do, so it's hard to judge.
MCGINTYBut, but I think you hit a key point, James, and when you said it's a movement. So, even if you put overwhelming force on the ground, does that stop a movement?
KITFIELDNo. And so, and I'm not saying that we should put -- very few people I've talked to said we should, you know, reintroduce combat brigades and put boots on the ground again. But if, for instance, you know, they got hold of weapons of mass destruction and we thought they would be coming at us with those, would we put boots on the ground? Maybe, you know, it depends.
MCGINTYAll right, let's take another phone call. Eric in Washington, D.C. You're on the air. Go ahead.
ERICYeah, thanks so much. I just wanted to kind of point out the guests have been very good at talking about Iraq's military capabilities of clearing territories of ISIS. With the Golden Brigades and the Iraqi Commandos. The real challenge, and I think your guests spoke to this too, is Iraq's military capabilities of holding territory. And that's, I think, one of the great risks. The other...
MCGINTYSo, you're worried they take the territory, but then can't hold onto it.
ERIC...well, yeah, because you also have to have, you know, the Iraqi Army having the capabilities of holding territory once you've cleared it. We're already seeing a resurgence of, you know, ISIS activity in places like Ramadi. So that's a huge danger. I mean, the bottom line is I think the US, the international community has to accelerate building up Iraq's capabilities of holding territory. And then you can't ignore the building, you can't ignore the humanitarian side.
ERICI mean, Mosul is a city of over a million that remain in that city. I mean, actually, it's a city of two million. But it's, right now, there's somewhere around a million residents. You have 48,000 ISIS militants interspersed within that population. It could be, you know, it could go on for weeks. And you could see mass displacement. Right now, the UN has been preparing for it, but there's only enough space in these camps for about 200,000.
MCGINTYAll right, let's talk about it. You raised so many good points there. Andrew, tell me.
TILGHMANYeah, I think he makes a really good point and in terms of the Iraqis' ability to hold the territory. And it's -- at some point there, it switches from becoming a military issue to a political issue. I mean, you can send in Iraq's army, which is mostly led by Shiites. And they can have kind of an occupying force that tamps down the violence and roots out the remnants of ISIS for a while. But at some point, you're going to have to switch over to a regular local police force that would be, you know, led by the local Sunni Arabs.
TILGHMANAnd I think that that's -- that I haven't heard anybody say they have a real vision as to how that's going to play out. As to how you end up with transitioning from an occupying army to just a stable place run by locals.
KUBEYeah, Eric is right. So, one of the cornerstones of the US mission there has been training Iraqis. And they have, like I said before, they have 30 to 45 thousand that are in waiting to go into Mosul to actually hold it once it's secure. But there also are these five centers, or sites around the country where the US and some other coalition partners are training the Iraqis. They, they have a lot of deficits. You know, about a year or so ago, one of the big things that US airpower had to do there was send down bombs.
KUBE500 pound bombs to blow up IEDs in the road, because the Iraqis had no counter IED capability. Seems simple, you know, because the US has that capability and is so good at it, but that was something that they had to train them in. And it just takes time. You know, there are tens of thousands of Iraqi Security forces and it takes time to train them.
MCGINTYWe should note that knowledge of how to deal with IEDs was hard earned by US forces.
MCGINTYIn Iraq. Courtney Kube is National Security Producer for NBC News. Andrew Tilghman is Pentagon Bureau Chief at the Military Times. And James Kitfield is Contributing Editor for the National Journal. And Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. I'm also told that James is the author of a new book. It's called "Twilight Warriors." And he's going to be back here on the Diane Rehm Show next Monday night, next Monday afternoon or next Monday morning, I should say, to talk about that.
MCGINTYAll right. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. We'll go back to our phones and chat with Carter in Tampa, Florida. You're on the air, Carter. Go ahead.
CARTERHey, how's it going?
MCGINTYJust fine. Thanks.
CARTERMy question is this is coming from me being a captain in the US Army, Military Police in Civil Affairs. I've never been to Iraq, but multiple deployments to Afghanistan. And my question I pose to you, all of you, is what is our end stakes in Central Asia and the Middle East? Where do we see ourselves in 10 years? Is it Turkey has a larger regional influence in the Middle East and I don't know, Afghanistan has one within Central Asia? Or what are we seeing 10, 20 years down the road from now when, I don't want to call it victory achieved, but you know, more stable.
MCGINTYI think you've, you've asked the question on the minds of millions there. What do you think gentlemen and lady?
KITFIELDLeave it to the captain to ask the toughest question. It's an excellent question. I think we've -- I think the Middle East has gotten so complicated that we can't see 10 years down the road, quite honestly. The Arab Spring was -- is really the precursor to a lot of what we're seeing in the Middle East now. Destabilized a whole region that was a pretty dysfunctional region even before that. Mostly, you know, kings and autocrats and dictators.
MCGINTYMany of whom had US backing because they were stable.
KITFIELDAbsolutely. Absolutely. And I think that we're heading back to something like that stasis where we have figured out that instability is a lot more dangerous to us than a certain kind of stability where you may not love all the actors, but we're not going to go in there and make all those places flower in democracy. So, I suspect, you know, we have our allies in the Saudi Arabian and the Sunni Gulf kingdoms. We're going to be in a tense relationship with Iran, which is going to gain from all of this for quite a while.
KITFIELDThat's why it's important we keep our alliance with Turkey, because Turkey's going to be a huge player in this. But I think we want to get back to some sort of stasis that is fairly stable. We can put up with that a lot more than instability that gives rise to groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
MCGINTYSo, the million dollar question becomes, would we be better off, would the United States be better off, would the West be better off if Saddam Hussein was still in power, if the former President of Egypt was still in power, if Yemen hadn't begun to destabilize?
KITFIELDWould the United States be in better shape? We might be in better shape. The problem is it goes against our principles. We didn't cause the Arab Spring. That's, that, that I can tell you. That came -- that was internal. That was people who had been under the yolk of totalitarianism for too long. And they started these revolutions. When that happens, it's very hard for the United States, you know, President Bush tried to provoke his own Arab Spring in 2005.
KITFIELDWhen confronted with it, President Obama did the exact same thing. He tried a sort of, get on the side of Democrats, but it's not worked out so well. And I think we're going to be back to where we were, which is we'd rather have the stability than have these really destabilizing sort of movements that topple governments and don't leave anything except ISIS to rise from the ashes.
KUBEYeah, the US did encourage the Arab Spring, definitely. Even though they didn't, wasn't more behind it, necessarily. And Carter, he asked an excellent question, and thank you for your service, Carter. I think in a perfect world, I don't know that this is necessarily possible in 10, 20, or even more years from now, but in a perfect world, the US would want to see the nations in that region as allies of the US and them able to maintain their own security so that terrorism, that extremism cannot be exported out of the region into the US.
KUBEAt the end of the day, the US is ultimately, keenly and most interested in protecting Americans, whether they be here in the US or abroad. So if these nations can maintain their own security on their own, and ISIS and Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab don't become a threat outside of the region, I think that would be the best case scenario for the US at this point.
MCGINTYAndrew Tilghman, you'll get the final word on this one.
TILGHMANYeah, I think that Carter asked an excellent question. And when I look out 10 or 20 years, I think one of the follow on questions is really will the US continue to have the same kind of military presence and really seek to exercise the same kind of influence that it does today? I think over the past few years, you've really seen Iran and Russia exercise a lot more influence in these places that used to be essentially ours to decide what we wanted to do with. And, you know, how that trend goes I think will go a long way towards answering Carter's question about what the region looks like in a couple decades.
MCGINTYAll right, Andrew Tilghman is Pentagon Bureau Chief at the Military Times. Courtney Kube, National Security Producer for NBC News. And James Kitfield, Contributing Editor for the National Journal and Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. And by the way, you can listen for live coverage of the final Presidential debate tonight on many NPR stations, beginning at nine Eastern. Along with live fact checking at npr.org. I'm Derek McGinty. You've been listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Thanks for joining us.
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