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tv   Michael Gordon Degrade Destroy  CSPAN  September 5, 2022 5:11am-6:26am EDT

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officials and military commanders. and because of his extraordinary firsthand reporting from the battlefields, he's produced a must read book on this historic conflict. we were very proud to have michael with us in-house at fcd for a period while he was working on the book. and we understand you also spent time at cns during the same. we're all happy to see it on the shelves today. it's available for purchase at all. major booksellers online, i'm sure. and for those of you here in person, in the back of the room at the conclusion of today's events. michael gordon currently as the national security correspondent for the wall street journal. in addition to his latest book, he is the co-author with the late general bernard trainor, a wonderful man of three definitive histories of the united states wars in iraq. full disclosure. i've known michael for a rather long time. i won't tell you how long because he looks so young and
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may not want to admit his age. but this clue we were in the same bullpen at the new york times in the previous century. he wasn't astonishingly good. reporter i could tell you stories. and by the way, reassuring to note, he's still an astonishing good reporter today. so some things don't change. to dive into this conflict with us and the lessons learned, we are very glad to have with us lieutenant general sean macfarland, u.s. army retired general macfarland served as a three star commander of the coalition against isis in syria and iraq during his command from 2015 to 2016, coalition forces recaptured nearly half of the enemy's territory and set the conditions for enemy's final defeat. well, we'll talk about that a little more today. we're equally honored to have michele flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the obama administration from 2009 to 2012. she's the co-founder and chair
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of the cnrs board of directors. she's also co-founder and managing partner of west exec advisors. today's conversation will be moderated by my colleague bradley bowman. brad serves as senior director at the center on military and political power, which focuses on defense policy and strategy. he served four years as a senate national security advisor and before as an active duty u.s. army officer, blackhawk pilot and assistant professor at west point. before a hand the floor over to brad. just a couple of quick words about ftd. for anybody who may not be familiar with us. for more than 20 years, beginning following the attacks of 911, ftd has operated as a nonpartisan research institute but exclusively focused on national security and foreign policy. our experts are a source of timely research analysis, policy options. we take no foreign government money. we never have. we never will. for more information on our
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work, we encourage you to visit our website, just ftd dot org, ftd dot org. you can follow us on twitter at ftd. so thank you again for joining us for this important and timely conversation. brad, i'm pleased to turn this over to you and thank you so much, cliff, and thanks to everyone for joining us here in the room, which is exciting. haven't seen this in a while and thanks for everyone tuning in online. and i also want to congratulate you, michael, on your extraordinary book. and i'm really looking forward to this conference session. and secretary flournoy and joe mcfarlane, what a distinguished panel. and i'm so glad you could join us today. so thank you. my general plan for the next hour or so is for us to have a conversation for about 40 minutes or so. and i'm sincerely to get two questions from the audience, because we have essentially the same audience with this day. so that's the plan. so with that, let's jump right in the book is here. you see it displayed in front of us. so let me start, michael, if i may, with the most obvious question. this is your fourth book on wars in iraq, if i'm not mistaken. why did you decide to write it?
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and tell us a bit about all the research that went into it? well, thanks, brad, for having me here. and i also i just looking around the audience, i see that what's really interesting about this event is there are a lot of people who are real played pivotal roles in this successful. it has to be said, campaign against the islamic state. you know in the united states track record in military complex has been mixed but i think by all reasonable measures you'd have to count this one as a success. well, as you know, i've covered all these conflicts and i was in seven of them in various parts of the world, on the ground as a car spun out. and there's just so much one can do as a newspaper reporter. and i always every time i was in the middle of these tumultuous and massive events, you know, a war, you get a very close bird's eye view of of what's happening. and sometimes you're in the middle of these combat operations. but i always wanted to know what was really going on, which was
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hard to know at the time. what were the choices? what was the strategy, what was the road not followed? what was happening in washington? and then the three previous books, which i did with general trainor, you know, our goal then was not to be the first out of the gate and write the first book, but to try to take the time to put something together that would the test of time. maybe it wouldn't be the only book on the conflict, but it would be one of the books that people would have to read. and that's the approach i took here. certainly wasn't the first out of the gate since it took me six years, but but and i what i tried to do is what i've in the past, which is do a lot of shoe leather reporting in washington at the highest levels. i could get to. and in this case, it was multiple administrations, but also on the ground in the middle of these battles in mosul and and sinjar are and experience in in syria and in fused together
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and one of the things that's still striking to me today is there is no pentagon history of this conflict just hasn't been done. so this is something that there's a rand corporation of the air. there's pieces of it on the army side, but no one in the u.s. government is bothered to do this. so i think it's important to get the record and establish it as best i could while the getting was good that's great. now thank you. and one of the things that struck me about the book is reading is that you really went from policy grand strategy to strategy to the operations and tactics kind of seamlessly. can you speak for just a moment about the embedding that you did? is that you discuss in the book a little bit, you know, the combatants that you're embedded with in key moments during the war. so one of the striking features of this war, unlike the previous, unless operation iraqi freedom, the invasion and occupation of iraq is there is extensive embedding. and those conflicts, which i
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took great advantage of and stayed with units for a long periods of time, in all parts of iraq, there was no embedding in this war. the military didn't do it. and the obama administration didn't do it. and it has to be said that today the biden administration doesn't do it in terms of our forces in poland that were mobilized there to deter russian aggression and reinforce naito. i know because i asked and the unit disagreed, but they had higher levels of the biden administration. it was not a i approved, but there were opportunities to get close to the action because this was a war where we worked with a vast array of partners, all in partners who will take you. they didn't have any particular requirements about security, namely your security. and so i was able to go with the peshmerga in mosul in sinjar. i was able to go with the iraqi
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counterterrorist service. and in in west mosul and i was able to interview general mazloum in syria and also on positive side on the military. well, there was no formal embedding process. i was able to do what they call a battlefield circulation and where you move around the battlefield. but general townsend and people like colonel pat work, who was a key person in the battle for west mosul. so i had that kind of access. but the embedding was with the partner forces. thank you. we mentioned policy secretary flournoy. you obviously, as cliff said, served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the obama administration from 2009 to 2012. and you're the the administration's then decision to withdraw u.s. forces from iraq in 2011 is an important antecedent. i'd say, to the events that michael describes in his book, before i ask michael to walk us through some of those key milestones and decisions from
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2014 to 2019, i'm wondering if you be willing to provide your insights into the thinking and policy debates within the administration surrounding the 2011 iraq withdrawal. let me start by saying, first of all, congratulate michael and how important i think books like this are, because as americans, we too often are in a hurry to get conflicts in the rearview mirror and not to actually pause and try to learn lessons from them so that we capture what works. we from what doesn't work and we do better the next time or even avoiding the next time, because if possible, and thanks to tv for co-hosting, this was seen as so. i was definitely present in the decision making around president obama's ultimate choice to withdraw from iraq. you know, when when we came into office, we obviously inherited two wars, afghanistan and iraq. and i think the obama administration, after its initial, was really kind of following the same approach that the bush administration had had,
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which was a very deliberate phase transition or a drawdown based on conditions as iraqi forces were able to exert control and have the capacity and capability and a given province, there would be a transition of that province. u.s. forces or coalition forces would be repositioned and gradually we'd be drawing down. and that's that was started in the demonstration. it continued in the early of the obama administration. and we came to a point where there was really a question of, do you drawdown completely withdraw or do you maintain indefinitely some kind of residual force at the time? both the civilian side and the military side of the pentagon was pretty unified. and in arguing for a residual force at that point were taking very few casualties. thankfully. but we did feel like our presence and the advise and assist role was strengthening the iraqi backed backbone was
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helping to dampen down tensions between, the different ethnic elements of the force in iraq, not ethnic or religious, but sunni, shia, kurd, kurdish and we still had a pretty important glue role of growing it all together and keeping it going very fulsome discussion of pros, the cons, the risks and, you know, the people committed their views to paper. we had repeated situation room discussions, debates about every aspect, and at the end the day the president made his decision and he wanted to and one of the wars he inherited and he felt that given the threat at the time and the assessment of the iraqi forces, that they would be able hold it together with a security assistance mission only. what i think he didn't anticipate was the extent to
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which maliki the prime minister at the time would be so insecure with the withdrawal of u.s. forces that he would go a hard turn back towards sectarian islam and persecution of the sunni, which then created space for what had been aqi, al qaida in iraq re-emerge as isis with now the safe haven syria as well. so i think things very quickly started moving in a bad direction, you know, to obama's, i would say, although i disagreed his initial decision, obviously, and i made that very clear at the time he did do the right thing. and you the threat and and i went back in but i think at some some great cost. i mean, i still am of the mind that we might have deter that we jubilation over isis had we maintained a residual force. thank you for that with that
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context in mind, michael, i want to come to you before i bring general mcfarlane into the conversation following the withdrawal of us forces in 2011, can you walk us through, if you wouldn't mind, the key milestones and decisions associated with really three things the rise of isis, the decision to send u.s. forces to iraq, and then ultimately the battle to defeat the isis caliphate. well, i'll do that all in like 3 minutes or less, a very concise because i think general mcfarland, a very important role along with some people here in the audience in building the structure that was needed to defeat isis. but i agree with michelle that the with withdrawal of u.s. forces from iraq created a situation in which maliki, who, by the way, is making a bit of a comeback in iraq now, a sectarian tendencies were unleashed which created a ground within that country for isis to
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gain a greater foothold. and also the absence of american forces really led to the deterioration of the iraqi security forces. without that mentoring and presence, it also deprived washington of the situational awareness it needed of what was happening and the reason mosul came as a great shock to the white house, but less of a shock to the u.s. special operations community because they saw ice coming was not so much that not only that isis had greater capability, that was anticipated, but the security forces were so hollow. and if we had stayed there, we would have been aware of that and we've been able to address that in terms of the key milestones, the president obama made the decision to go back in, it wasn't such a simple thing because this was an entirely different kind of war. they the partners are going to do the fighting we were going to do the mentoring and provide the air.
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so they had to figure out a scheme to employ advisers. that took about two plus years to get right because. it took that long for advisors to be fully deployed on the battlefield. the iraqi forces they had to create a command structure for both iraq and and some sort of a unified headquarters. that's what general macfarland did. they had to evolve the air strategy chief from just going after targets on in the front lines to going after deep targets that took some doing and and pushing by commanders in the field to make happen they had to work out a system for conflicting operations with the russians after they came into syria which base actually worked although with some tensions and so there a lot of really big pieces had to be put into place
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to make this work and it took a few years for all of that to happen and finally reached its fruition before the end of the obama administration. but it didn't come easy. thank you, general. coming to you, if i may, as michael accounts in his book, pages 153 and 5431 154. for anyone taking notes, you assumed command camp ashraf john in september second, 2015. on that day, secretary defense ash carter said, quote, as michael, rather than three general generals responsible for a different aspects of the campaign as been the case, i have empowered lieutenant general mcfarlane as the single commander of counter activities in both iraq and syria, unquote. carter said, quote, efforts will be critical in the coming months. that was quite an understatement. i would. i'd love to hear you respond in any way you'd like to. what michael just detailed especially anything that occurred after you assumed command. sure thanks, fred. well, first of all, you i was honored by the confidence that
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secretary carter had in me. and i hope i justified it. but the main job at hand to create this command and control structure that encompassed both iraq and syria. and that required us pulling together some of the special operations tribes, as they call themselves, under one command, although they didn't all completely come under that one command. but the coordination was enhanced significantly with some the chase soccer teams. but we brought that together building up that headquarters presented its own challenges as michael recounts a bit in his book. you know, the fire marshal at camp arifjan wouldn't let them move into their building because it didn't enough sprinkler heads. so we had to put them in in the summer heat of kuwait in a motor
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pool next to my headquarters and, you know, backed up reefer vans to, you know, push enough cold air into those things. you know, how many sprinkler heads are in tents, by the way? tell us. but anyway, we pulled that together and that was important because the command and control and in two countries had to be balanced against the fact that we had two different sets of authorities, really, for use of force, one and half. and in syria, one in iraq, we forces distributed in turkey and jordan and kuwait and qatar and and, of course, in iraq. we had 29 troop contributing nations of the coalition of, i think almost 60 countries. and we had, you know, carrier strike groups operating. and there a lot of activity going and and then the other thing to keep in mind is we were
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under in iraq title 22 authority. we had a chief of mission, a fully operating embassy. and balancing all those equities in syria. we had really two wars happening, not just one. we were fighting isis. that was my war. but we also had the civil war going on against the assad regime. so and then the russians showed, as michael said, about a week after i did so, getting that command and control structure together enabled us to have more of a unity of effort because isis was not constrained by the sykes-picot line. you know, they view themselves as one single caliphate. they had the advantage interior lines and we were on the periphery around them. and so getting of effort, unity of command was essential to making progress. and then once we had that, we were able to round out a campaign with very three very clear lines of effort, with one
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of which was the priority, which defeating isis. the second most important was building capacity both in iraq and, in syria and there was leveraging coalition effects as best we could because as of those 29 troop contributing nations, they all came with their red cards and, caveats and so forth, and if you looked at air and ground operations in iraq and air ground operations in syria and plot that a venn diagram at the intersection of those circles, you would probably only find one flag at first. you know, and one that we would all recognize just to the right of michael. so, you know, we tried to bring more of those into the center of that venn diagram or closer to the center. so all of that had to happen. and it only could happen with one commander in charge. we had to develop the plan once we kind of figure out what our lines of effort were, what's
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first, what's next, and and identify decision points that would lead us to those things, those those transitions and and then what and then organize ourselves in terms of operation ins and intelligence collection to, facilitate each of those decisions and move the campaign along and. and once we had that in hand, then we to kind of communicate that out to all the stake, both here in the united states and around various capitals and and who i think were the most important, initial things that we had to kind of get up and going the describes how, you know, the name that we gave this particular strategy was by, with and through. and i'd be interested from your perspective as the person that was leading this, what were the advantages and challenges
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associated with a by with and through strategy in in implicit or now explicit contrast with what we did in afghanistan or in iraq pre 2011. yeah. so big one of the big problems was not problems but challenges is was that by with and through who you know, it wasn't just one indigenous partner force on the ground. there were many in iraq and syria, some of which, you know, did not get along with one another and some of which we didn't get along. and, you know, this old sore friend of enemy of my enemy is my friend was not always operative. and so we had to find ways to balance out mutually. hostile forces against the threat by either assuring one or incentive, by using one or the other or both and we also had to
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keep in mind that lot of these indigenous forces were not principally opposed to isis, especially in syria. they were opposed to the assad regime. and we were trying to get them to take their eye the wolf closest to their sled and say, no, could you fight isis for us, too? i think. well, isis doesn't like assad either. why should we fight those guys? well, because we're asking to so and of course, nobody does, you know, out of pure altruism. so you know, we provided incentives for them to train, equip funds, other types of support. and one of the most important was air support, you know, we provided them with the ability to conduct operations of interest to them in return for conducting interest operations of interest to the fight against isis. so security forces assistance was, you know, a bit a learning
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process, getting to know whose equities were in play and how they balanced out against one another. then we had the challenge of the fact that a lot of these forces on the well, first of all, in syria, we had nobody on the ground initially to engage with them. and in iraq, we had people on ground, but the people were on the ground with were trained and equipped for a counterinsurgency battle. and that was not what we were fighting. isis was a proto state. it had a hybrid forces in the field bordering on conventional capabilities. and we had to retrain and re-equip a lot of those forces to enable them to to fight effectively. and then we also had to go through this process that michael, to of getting ourselves properly aligned for the fight with the right authorities. you know, you know, the rules of engagement and so forth to meet
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the the the situation, the ground. thank you, michael. your book, a lot of very interesting exclusive lives and back stories. one of them relates to the syrian democratic forces. i'm wondering if you could tell how we first came to to work with the syrian democratic forces. there's an interesting story there, and i'd love to hear you tell it. so one of the as general mcfarland said of the striking features about this conflict, we didn't have one partner. we had multiple partners and in iraq, there was the iraqi security, which is also not one partner. it's the counterterrorism, it's the iraqi army, it's the federal police, all reporting to different ministries, the kurdish peshmerga made up of different political entities there. but there wasn't a u.s. obvious u.s. partner force, syria. and that's where isis had its capital in raqqa. so who is to do that? and one thing that i was striking to me and i was
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surprised to learn, but embedded in the course of this research was just how early this alliance began and what actually happened in august of 2014, really the day after mosul dam was taken back then, colonel chris donahue of later of man out fame for kabul. now the three star commander of the 18th airborne corps, he was then the delta force commander in in northern iraq, which was whose presence was not acknowledged openly by the u.s. government. and he had a meeting. and sulaymaniyah that was brokered by the kurdish authorities there who were not on good terms with the kurdish authorities in erbil. but that's a separate story. and and he met with general mazloum, who was then representing the ypg, a kind of
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militia. and he basically came up with a concept that that could be the partner force, that could be that would stop volunteers from joining the isis caliphate coming down through turkey basically. and they would stop them in iraq and they would stop them in syria. and there was a basic understanding between donoghue and most of them reach then it wasn't yet approved. and in there were other suitors for general muslim earlier in the day he had a meeting with kassem suleimani, who tried to strike his own deal with the syrian kurds. but mazloum went with the americans and it took some time before this relationship gained traction through the fall. kobani and actually the absence of other solutions which the administration for a while but that became the mainstay of the u.s. effort in syria and it was absolutely although it did take some time to arm and equip them.
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based on your reporting, what is the best estimate you've seen in terms of how many casualties the syrian democratic forces sustained in going after the caliphate so i tried to pin that down and what was not so easy, i think writing the book in excess of 5000, but i think they claim substantially. one thing that was striking about this is i think 20 u.s.. there were 20 u.s. in combat as well of combat in operation inherent resolve. there were thousands of iraqi security force soldiers and policemen who died. there were probably 5000 or more sdf, syrian democratic forces, as they branded themselves, who got killed. there were somewhere probably on the order of 1600 to 8000 civilians who died in this conflict. so a high price was paid by the
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partner forces in executing this victory. and it's as a consequence of that, that u.s. casualties were so low. john mcfarlane i mean, i guess that from an american perspective, that's one of the the advantages of the buy two strategy is that we have motivated with shared interests who are enduring of the sacrifice. is it fair to say that if we didn't have partners like that, those would have been american casualties or we could still be confronting the caliphate. yeah, it would have been one of those other two outcomes. and neither good either. we would have suffered more casualties or we would have had to accept a far less favorable outcome with possibly a caliphate still operating in some shape or form and potentially destabilized iraq and, you know, almost as bad as what we see in syria, i don't
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know. i mean, it's hard to say. fortunately, we have to, you know, deal with that. we can only speculate. yes, please. on this point, i'm just i mean, the with and through approach has now become sort of i would say, standard for how we're thinking about sustained counter terrorism around the world. and in this case it was quite remarkably successful particular given the multiplicity of actors who didn't always, you know, see things from the same vantage point. but i in other places where it's ongoing going, it's it's facing some real challenges. and so one of the things that i'm interested is understanding and not to take over your job, but to ask the question under what conditions does it work? well, and when does it not work so well? because i'm looking at somalia today, yemen today. we're having some real challenges with approach. and it worked. it has worked in those places in
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earlier times. much better than it is working today. so sort of really getting at in your experience what what makes it and what makes it not work? what are key conditions that separate success from less than success? well, i can't speak to why it isn't working in some other places, because but i can tell you that one of the reasons it worked in iraq and syria is because we had we were able to gain the trust and the political and military levels of the iraqi government to the kurdish government and, you know, with the although the sdf civilian leadership is a little murkier, there appeared to be buy in to what we were there as well. and and then we were able to back it up with, sufficient
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resources. we were able to deliver what we promised. i have to tell you, you know, i'd come back to my headquarters as you know, with the you know, my list of things to do several pages long and a throbbing headache because i knew it'd be difficult to to provide all the things that were being of us. but i had a lot of support up and down the chain of command, all the way up to the secretary of you know, and certainly the national security council as well. when i asked for things, you know, they they were provided, you know, not always like the minute asked for them. you know, michael points out a bit of the friction and war that occurs. you know, i didn't have to worry balancing the political against the military equities in the states. my boss did that for me know and and i got what i needed when i it maybe not as soon as i asked
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for it, but i think in the long run, you know, in time. but those those were that's why i think it work, you know, and and it wasn't just me. i'm sorry, but, you know, i had to great support of a us ambassador there. ambassador stew jones in iraq, who provided all kinds of access to, all kinds of players that i would not have had to to include hadi al-amiri of the badr organization. and you people, you know, interlocutors allowed me indirectly to communicate. kassim suleimani, even, you know, two degrees or three degrees of separation. but messages, you know, we're being tacitly exchanged that way that, you know, so we were able to work with all the different parties and balance their equities that way. and again, it was the us embassy team, you know, support that helped even, you know, reaching
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across into syria and turkey, you know, the offices of brett mcgurk, people like that were critical. absolutely. i'm sorry that was so i think there are a couple i had to put some thought into, you know, why it worked and in this conflict and it did work in the end. and and i came up with a few things. one, in this conflict, there was accompanying authorities and it took until really december or 2016 to get to fully fleshed that out. but general mcfarland, for the first time initially the washington did not allow the advisors go on to the battlefield with the iraqi forces except for sof elements. so they were advising from within the wire a lot of importuning from the generals to washington and eventually they allowed this to happen. i think it happened for the first time in the summer of 2016 when advisors, an iraqi
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battalion crossing the tigris. but it took a lot of pressure from baghdad say hey we got to send the advisors out into the field to go with the forces. you can't do this remotely. so that was essential. i think another thing is the partners had to be reasonably credible in their own society by the standards that prevailed in their cultures. you know, and i think and that was, i think largely the case even if they were unorthodox partners, like the one ambassador roebuck sitting here worked with, with the sdf or the they had that kind of credibility. second of all, there was a enormous amount of resources applied to, this in terms of air and reconnaissance, which shouldn't minimized. and there was an advantage here also that the u.s. had in which in this conflict the us did not allow the enemy a sanctuary. isis did not have a sanctuary in
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syria and afghanistan. the taliban and, their allies had a sanctuary in pakistan. that problem was never solved, but that was a liability that didn't exist in this particular conflict. so i think that this model has potential applicability to the future, although all cases different. and i would even argue a modified version of it greatly modified is kind of what we're doing in ukraine to a certain extent, yes. we don't have advisors on the ground not doing the airstrikes, but it was 10th special forces group that trained the ukrainian forces. we supply intelligence, ammunitions and arms. you could you could argue that it's an abridged. you know, modified, scaled back version of, by, with and through. that's being carried out today in ukraine, of necessity, because the there is a nuclear armed power. i agree with everything michael just said. i'd like to apply a couple of
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small caveats. one is, it is possible to do too much in security force assistance, and we try to find that sweet spot in terms of how much support you're providing because you know, everything i did was against isis. i had to keep russia and iran in mind, you know, and try to balance, you know, what i was doing against isis and not create another problem for us. you know, along the way. the other thing is, it is possible at least in iraq, might one of my concerns was that if we do too much, the iraqis will fall back into old habits and step aside and let us take the lead. you know, and that was not the model we were trying to, you know, follow there. so, you know, there was a bit of a balance there to be struck.
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and, you know, we kind of eased our way into, you know, the correct level of advise and assist in a company. and one of the great things about accompanying was that, for one thing, you know, the iraqi security forces would not go to mosul unless we promised them that we would accompany them because their initial fighting was all baghdad from beiji to ramadi, going to mosul was like a moonshot you know, in 1961, you know, right after, you know, a rocket had blown up on the pad, you know, and they're like, no, now we want to go to the moon. they they that was a big move for them. it was a 100 kilometers, basically. and they would have to reassemble riyadh, retrain their armor units than they had done anything like that since they had invaded kuwait. so it took time to get all that put together with them and getting embedded with them was going to be important for that same. with the iraqi counterterrorist
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service guys up in camp speicher, you know, we had to kind of put the band together that we were going to take up to a and they wanted to know that if there are americans embedded with us you're not just going to leave us out there in the middle of a desert surrounded by howling isis forces, you know, to be massacred. that won't happen if the americans are with us. so that was a sign, a qua non for that operation. it was also sine qua non for the krg for president barzani. i will not allow iraqi forces north of the green line unless there are americans embedded with them. why? because the last the iraqi army rolled up towards, you know, it not to shake hands, you know, and work together. it was a very different situation. so i want to make sure that there are no shenanigans. so i so we provide an assurance
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to both partners by being there and and we got away with not being embedded in ramadi because were relatively close to ramadi with our support camps and to khaddam and al-assad. but it would not be that case up around mosul. and that's why our initial embeds were at camp speicher as we were ready, the ninth armored division and the second ice off brigade for that 100 kilometer assault. thank you. i'm eager to bring the audience into the conversation. great. i see. hands off. if wouldn't mind waiting for the microphone to come to you and then identify yourself and then we'll go from there. let's gentlemen right here with us in the. thanks so much. i'm tom schenker with the project for and national security at gw. michael, congratulations. thanks to all the panelists. questions about intelligence and warning in a region of the world
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where our record is not very good. michael, in the opening pages, you quote the obama interview with the new yorker, where he says isis's the j.v. . clearly, that proved to be wrong statement. didn't say that the conditions was there. no intelligence on. the rise of isis reaching the commander in chief. was it inadequate? was there great intelligence that he wasn't paying attention to. how could this have happened with the president saying not a problem? you. my own view on that is that the white house was so dedicated to its strategy of bringing a so-called responsible end to the conflict in iraq that it ignored numerous warning signs that began in august 2013, when hoshyar zebari, the iraqi foreign minister, went to the pentagon and had a meeting with marty dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs, and asked for help. that continued, colonel chris and mike nagata, the sox and
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commander, went to iraq in february 2014 and reported that the iraqi counterterrorism service couldn't handle this new threat. isis that continued. the iraqi ambassador sent a memo to jake sullivan, then the advisor to vice president biden, in may of 2014, saying they need an american airstrikes and immediate help. i have letter, i put it in the book. it's quoted in there. and but i think the mindset at the pentagon at the time, as michelle said was, they were really hoping that they wouldn't have to engage there. and they they were also contending with, to be fair to them, a lot of other crises, afghanistan, egypt was in turmoil. assad used chemical weapons. so there was a lot of other things happening in the middle east that think diverted the white house from paying attention to this particular file. michael, let me follow up with you, if i may, on that. you know, the subtitle from barack obama to donald trump,
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what were the similarities and differences that you saw between the two administrations, how they viewed and prosecute of the war? so during the presidential campaign, then candidate trump made a number of statements that. why should he become president? he was going to bomb the heck of isis, except he didn't use the word hack and the and take the gloves off. so speak and change the strategy. but in point of fact, president trump did not change the strategy and he did not change the rules of engagement, according to commanders i've talked to basically what the what he did was he reduced a level of white house oversight. critics would say micromanagement that's slowed the pace of decisions. for example, at the end of the obama administration, they had a restriction that there could only be helicopters in syria at any one time for 72 hours with
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sort of the kind of constraints white house put on things. well, the under h.r. , president trump's national security adviser, that was all washed away. but the ironic result was what president trump did was. he prosecuted the obama strategy, but initially a little more efficiently than obama himself, with the important caveat that he injected a lot of turbulence into the strategy by later taking forces out of syria, back into syria and out of syria, and then back into syria in towards the end, which create a lot of challenges for the military commanders. thank you. let's go back to the audience, please. other questions, a question right here. thank you, everyone. your time, dan and robert with the washington post. i wanted to ask a question about, i guess, sort spasms in foreign policy. and i think we saw one to some degree with the rapid withdrawal from northern syria during the
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trump administration. we've obviously seen others since then last summer in afghanistan, i guess michael, as you look at your reporting here and we look back at that northern syria episode and in the following months and the way things kind of settled down, how do you see that in retrospect how do you think it went and? how do you think it settled down? and are there any broader lessons we can take away from that as we look at it, look ahead to what afghanistan might be, what ukraine be, and some of these other crises are on the horizon. i think you. well, i think it was a mistake to impulsively order out of syria. they fortunately still have troops and about a thousand troops in syria in the eastern serious security area. and on top garrisons. so the u.s. still has a presence there, which is important. it's hard over the horizon, is not an ideal strategy for for
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going after terrorists has just happened couple of days ago in syria it's important to keep a foothold there but the way that was way the troops withdrew from some part of northern syria was certainly it put a strain on u.s. relations with the sdf. and i think put the u.s. in a somewhat less and a more disadvantage edge position. i mean, he's modest but sitting here in this front row is ambassador bill roebuck. you should probably say something about it because he was the lafarge cement plant for one of the four that withdrawal when it was well they ammunition was blown up and he sdf and then later after you left the, u.s. came in and blew up our own headquarters so wouldn't fall into the turks hands, which you had to live through that whole experience. what would you were the consequences of that? mike microphone. thank you. just a quick observation.
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did you know that decision injected tremendous amount of turbulence into the relationship of the the georgetown myself muslim. who's it really quite angry with the u.s. it was a strong feeling for a short period to be trading. and there was some fear, i think that if we're really going to lead completely that the usda splintering possibly collapsed in the end the decision was changed, walk back and as you mentioned, michael, you have a very good job in describing the. oh, we did manage to maintain that foothold presence in of the northeast where we had men and maintain the troop presence. so we salvaged the policy. but it was quite turbulent. there were several, would you say were risk that they might have gone over to the russians to if they would they they in
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fact did go to the russians in some ways, they let the russians in to certain areas. kobani and in some other places, and also let the syrian regime in their in order to preserve those areas from the turks and. they they they always were dangling card. you know in i discussion with the syrian kurds but i do have to say that two of the most important indigenous people of all i'll say three very important indigenous players on the ground that we were fortunate it to have at the time was muslim prime minister abadi and and president barzani. you know i mean he you know, he's a hard negotiator, but you know ultimately was a an important player and ally on the ground. had any one of those three not been there it's hard to imagine how this would have played out.
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okay. other questions from the audience here. i was, morgan, a national security journalist and author of a book about afghanistan, the hardest place. michael, a through line through. all of your books about iraq is role of delta force, which you've alluded in your remarks to today. but i think a lot of people who read degrade and destroy will be really surprised to learn just how extensive that role was, particularly in syria. you know, far from being just engaged in kind of the boutique counterterrorism rating that, i think a lot of people associate delta force with. it comes to the point where it is it is running all the advise and assist efforts in syria for the most part, it is running an air campaign within air campaign. i wonder if could sort of describe how this on situation came about and then also comment a little on, you know, and i'd be curious to hear from general, too, about this. i mean, what were the pluses and minuses of this in terms of, you know, freedom of action that it
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gave the u.s. government versus command and control versus sort of the obvious transparency issue of a huge portion of this campaign run by an organization that the u.s. government won't talk about or even after the fact, getting them to talk about it, as you have done, is like pulling teeth. yeah. so i'll give a quick answer. so general mcfarland can can weigh in. i mean, delta force under initially under chris donahue, which ford's relationship with mazloum played an absolutely essential role, even though its activities at the time in the shadows and they they had the the central role in syria which was basically a soft special forces theater and they were called task force nine was the nomenclature and then because they were a few in numbers, they had to put the special forces group underneath them to do a lot of the training and build up the the country that had to fight. and that became 9.5 and they carried they carried out basically that war.
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and i think it. an end to the battle of baghuz, which was really the end of the office caliphate. and i interviewed people in that and it can't please june who were there temporarily and they walked me through a lot of that. i think it posed at times probably some command and control challenges because i don't think i think, you you didn't directly control them, had initially their own chain of command. they called their airstrikes. i think for many of these operations would probably go to kind of red card authority. right. you could you could veto something. they were going to do. but you didn't really directly control it. so it was sort of a unique feature of the war that we had kind of bifurcating war where we had this army moving on mosul, basically a kind of conventional army run by the conventional us army. and then we had a soft war and in syria against isis run very
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much by those guys lash together but but not under, you know, direct command and control. how would what would be your thoughts on that? yeah it was was definitely a hybrid command control arrangement. we we stood up to special ops joint task force for operation inherent and secretary carter's initial thought was all those jci guys would be underneath the and you know you you know without going into the sausage making that wasn't the ultimate outcome of the discussion but there was broad agreement because commanders were friends and battle buddies of mine afghanistan. and, you know, we were going to get along. we were going to work well together. tony thomas and i and, scotty miller. and, you know, i mean, we'd served together and and so, so
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we were committed to making sure that all this work. so we had major general jim kraft commanding the special ops and he was the supported commander in syria. and the 82nd, followed by the 101st, was the supported commander in iraq, and each one supported the other. and up in the other country that jim, you know yeah you had these you know, operators running around you know, and with a fifth group supporting them and all that stuff. but, but it was jim's to kind of sort all that out. i was the target engagement authority for both iraq and guns was my the guy who actually made that all work for me. but so, you know, the strikes all happening based on what level of delegation i gave those those guys and they had their own what we call c jack combined joint operations center that enabled them to make their own strike decision.
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so that delegated a level of authority just as the jay flick did you know so so it all out and you know i'm i'm from new york so i believe you know yogi berra was right when he said if it ain't broke, don't break it. you know and and you know the odd there the the jason guys were the first ones on the ground. they had a relationship with muslim, you know, and in the special forces guys are set were savvy enough when they came in and green berets being all about relationships saying. hey we're not going to sever any relationships that you have. we're going to build on it. we're going to support it. we're going to wrap around it. and that's what they did very effectively. so i think our special ops community found ways to, you know, make it all work without confusing muslims like which drive the special forces are you why am i talking to you now instead of you and they they figured it all i think exceptionally well and it was really a commitment to teamwork by the special ops folks to each
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other. and with me, the conventional guy that really smoothed out a lot of the peculiarities of the c two arrangement. another question over here in the back, please. thanks, brad. thanks. thanks, michael. it's great to see you again. my question is about the efficacy of the buy with and through. my name is matthews. so i was a co-author of the army's history, the iraq war and i think there's no question that there's there's you know, about the tactical of by with and through. but one of the findings we found in the our of the laf was the greatest benefactor the war may it may be tehran. and so my question then is if we look at iraq and syria today, the pmf is larger than the iraqi army. the irgc controls a line of communication from tehran through to damascus and beirut can by, with and through developed to deliver effects beyond the tactical level at the political or strategic level.
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and how do we assess that efficacy and whether by with and through really works at those levels today? so yeah, can affect that. when i was in command well that's when we occupied our times, you know, for a couple of reasons. one was to get control of the tri border area, another was to provide a springboard for operations up to have a camel and the euphrates river valley just southeast of gaza, which is really kind of the heart of darkness there. and then the third was because it was right astride this line of communication that we saw being by a number of iranian backed or suleiman sunni backed actors know through anbar province up into syria, which is probably why the russians accidentally bombed us there while i was there. you know, they didn't like us there and and by by putting
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ourselves on the ground there, we were able to largely mitigate some of these iranian efforts at creating, i think this expanded sphere of influence over western anbar, eastern syria. and that's to say, we completely eliminated we certainly reduced it likewise by being on the with mazloum in the north in east in the tigris river valley, it was more of a challenge. and i could see the fingerprint of suleimani on some of the plans put forth by the iraqi general officers on how we're going to go up to mars into mosul and rick and fallujah and around fallujah and and by having strong voice and being the. people there, the person in the room who could bring the most resources to bear to help the iraqis, we were able to keep a
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lot of the iranian inflow. so, you know, at an acceptable attempts, at an acceptable level, you know, for some time around missoula, it got a lot more complicated. and, you know, and so and i can't really talk to that because steve townsend had replacement by then. but leading up to that, you know, talking to how to deal armory, you know, he wanted pmf, you know in tal afar and places like that and it was a real challenge trying to keep but keep them at bay. but because we could provide more help to iraq than iran could. iran could cause more trouble for iraq. we could provide help. you know, there was sort of a balance there that we were able to strike with prime minister abadi. and so the by with and through provides, you know, a way to mitigate those kinds of
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situations not to say it's perfect, but it's better than nothing. yeah. can i just please, please? i mean, by, with and through as an operational approach. and you were mitigating second and third order effects of a much larger strategic decision that was made years earlier, which was invade iraq and take out saddam, you know, since regime which ended, you know, a very long period of iran and iraq essentially containing each other, being fully preoccupied and, containing each other in. the region, once you took away saddam's regime and you had the chaos of iraq, you know, the opportunity for iranian inflow once to grow was just exponential. and so i agree, you know, you set with that reality, you know, you could you can use by with and through to manage some of the second and third order impacts and mitigate some the challenges. but it's it it it can't be it's, you know, the strategy decision was a bigger decision.
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that was much prior. you know, prior as for that set the conditions that you can only then manage but can't really change with by with them right. that's true. yeah. thank one last question from the audience. yeah. hi, i'm retired colonel eisenberg. i'm a u.s. army medical corps. michaela, thank you very much for your book. and this is a question for the three of you in medicine. we about prevention and treatment. but i wanted to ask you a question. we spent $30 billion arming iraqi security and then. 500,000 insurgents came out and it melted away out there. and then the same thing happened in afghanistan. i'm curious to see where is the where's the problem in arming security forces of these countries? we spent so much effort doing
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that. but but it didn't turn out. i maybe you can help us for somebody like me. can i just say something as somebody who served in both iraq and afghanis before for the collapse of their respective military and try to do what you're about, you know, you've if you've ever taught a kid to ride a bicycle you know, you run alongside with a hand on the back of the bicycle seat for quite a while until they're ready to pedal on their and that can take quite a while. when you look at what the british have done, you know with their some of these force around the world and and places you know, with seconded officers serving in their formations, sometimes it doesn't take a lot, but it takes just and there's a little bit of science and art mixed together. there and understand how much of a presence you need to have to provide that reassurance and that level of professional ism
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to ensure that your money is going into the right place. you know, for every billion dollars that you send, how much is actually reaching the point of need? you have to have enough of an infrastructure there to monitor that. so i don't think that the the problems that we saw in iraq and negate the model, you know what, i think if anything, they reinforce the model, say, you know, you need enough people the ground because you i had an inspector general come around saying where's all the stuff that you provided to the iraqis? i don't know. i'm not allowed to leave the fob, you know, so, you know, we gave it to them. i assume they're using it. i see them shooting at isis through my uav feeds, you know, so but i. can i count for every bullet? no. couldn't in those cases. but in syria, when we had the troops on the ground, turkey wanted to know, hey you know,
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where's all the same ammunition going? is it going to be used against turkey? and we were able to provide a reasonable of assurance that, no, it's going to be used against thisis because we're there with hands on the back of the bicycle seat to make sure that it's being used for the intended purpose. so i think really the model is is fine. you know, it just needs to be followed through and sometimes it takes a lot of patience across multiple administrations. secretary flynt, you want to add to that. yeah, no i think they the us hand on the bicycle is is key and these things take you know, a very long time and usually we lose patience or interest or willingness to to to bear the cost, whether it's human or financial and we take our hand off the seat to him. i think the second challenge is, you know, if you were to do it, another one of my favorite proposed lessons learned is, you know, it's a real historical
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study of under what conditions does counterinsurgency urgency succeed or fail a huge factor that we tend not to pay enough attention to is the credibility and legitimacy of the partner that we choose. sdf had incredible legitimacy, huge maliki government, not so much. you know, karzai in afghanistan, not so much pressure, corruption you know, peshmerga and so the really a clear eyed assessment of does this partner or have the the credibility in the legitimacy to be supportable in a way that successful or not? because i think that's a factor that we've tended to discount or believe that we can somehow remake them or we would change how you know, their viewed among their own population, which is probably something more than we can actually do. yeah. that, that is a terrific point. i'll just associate myself with
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that and you know, say that that was we turn the tide in iraq and oh was the legitimacy of the tribal forces you know outstripped anything that the iraqi security forces had or they provided enough of a veneer of legitimacy to the iraqi security forces that they were able to turn the tide against before. we conclude, i can't resist the temptation to ask one last quick lightning round question. madam secretary, for you and for you, general, in a as some of you may have seen, there was a press release yesterday from u.s. central command announcing that we had conducted a drone strike against two isis officials and that one and maybe both of them were killed. we've talked about the isis threat and lessons learned, but unfortunately, this threat to degree is not completely in the rearview mirror. understanding the difference between a protest rate, as you said, a terrorist organization and an ideology those three things aren't the same thing is isil's defeated.
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one to both of you and based on your answer that what force do we need going forward in, iraq and syria, to contain that threat? secretary so i once had a and a counterpart from the middle east tell me the problem with you americans is you that every problem can be solved. many problems in our part of the world can only be managed. and so i we should continue to pursue the defeat of isis. al other groups that pose threat to the united states and our interests and allies. but i think these are very long term projects. these groups tend to be institute or we themselves, you know, i don't know why anybody would want to lead us at this point or be the number one or two? because don't tend to have a very long lifespan in that case. but but they do tend regenerate and i think this is something where you have to keep after the problem repeatedly until you it
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you know, it goes away, which may or may not happen. so we can contain the threat. us i don't think isis is posing a threat to the us homeland, but you look at even al qaida in the arabian peninsula, very busy with the civil war and doing other things. but if they turn their attention to the states, they have the historical credible city to actually reach out and touch. so you got to keep your eye on them. so we have to have a sustainable, manageable way to keep our eye on these groups and keep putting pressure on them so that they cannot be successful in planning and executing external attacks against us. general i would say absolutely isis was defeated because we prevented them from achieving their stated goal of creating a caliphate. are they eliminated? no and they've been knocked from a proto state hybrid conventional force down to a
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terrorist entity, more amorphous, more difficult and before the seven three dash 24 counterinsurgency, you came emmanuel came out. all we really had was the old low intensity conflict manual. it said the two principles of low intensity conflict were one, as we've mentioned earlier, legitimacy and to perseverance. you know, it's kind of figured out the legitimacy thing i hope we've learned lesson on perseverance as well. but can i just please quickly interject? i agree with fully with both those comments, but it's important to note that operation inherent resolve, which was the name of the isis's campaign, that probably percent of americans never heard under that descriptor still continues to this day. it's still in effect. the caliphate has been defeated. i think, and destroyed. but it's still remnants.
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but the operation is still there. there's a commander, there's 2500 u.s. troops in iraq, and there's a thousand or so in syria and seems apparent. one lesson the biden administration has learned from from history is. it's not planning to take these troops out. it understands it needs to maintain this presence to keep the lid on the situation. just one thing on the caveat, the perseverance. absolutely. but i think we can't let any of this get on automatic pilot where we just kind of treat it like. it's unchanging because situations, whether the threat, whether it's the partners and what they're willing to do, whether it's other factors they to change and i think if we don't keep refreshing, you know, our assessment of what's going on, what does it take to deal with it, the necessary authorities, capabilities, etc.? we we can we can get in trouble. so i'm not saying we're there at
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this point, but i do think that with all that's happening world, the rise of china is the pacing threat that's happening. russia and ukraine, north korea, iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. all of these are things where there's going to be. there is a risk of sort just putting the counterterrorism work. it kind of is a background ongoing, self-generating set of operations and that's dangerous to do. we've got to keep keep focused on that as well. thank you, madam secretary. michael, congratulations again on your book. it's if anyone hasn't read it yet, i highly recommend it. you can see my well tabbed version here. and thank you to our exceptional panel. you bring such insights and expertise. really enjoyed the discussion. i wish we had more. thanks to our audience for you were wonderful to have folks here in person. thanks to everyone online. for more information on ftd and our center on military political power, please go to dawg. and thanks again to seniors for co-hosting. so thank you.
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good evening, everyone, and thank you so much for joining us. just the usual reminders to silence your cell phones and. refrain from flash photography. good evening and welcome to the free library of philadelphia. my name is andy kahan and i am honored to introduce our guests. the nation's legal analyst and justice correspondent and a

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