The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins joins me to open Wednesday’s show, talking about his long piece on the Kurds and ISIS from the current New Yorker.
The audio of the Filkins interview:
HH: I’m joined by Dexter Filkins, who’s got a must-read article at the New Yorker called The Fight Of Their Lives, which actually brings you as much detail on ISIS and the battle on the Kurdish border as well as throughout the region. Dexter, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, it’s great to have you.
DF: Thank you so much.
HH: How much time did you spend in Kurdistan prior to filing this, Dexter?
DF: Several weeks. I made two trips. You know, the situation kept changing, so I went there in late June. I stayed through most of July and then I had to go back just because you know, ISIS captured a bunch of territory, and then you know, the U.S. started bombing, and so I just, I had to keep going back to update the thing, because it was all very fluid, you know?
HH: Now two days ago, I had on Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and I asked him about Kurdistan and their ability to wage war against ISIS. Here is what he had to say, Dexter Filkins.
RC: Hugh, it’s a difficult situation. The Peshmerga is, as anyone who served out there knows, are a very light infantry, and organizationally, they fight at the small unit level, you know, basically platoon. So we should not think that you can take a force like this and give them heavy weapons and ask them to organize into brigade-sized formations and it’s going to work. You know, they’re formidable when they fight on their own territory, when they’re up in their own mountains. But we’re asking them to do something different, not asking, I mean, they’re doing it on their own, which is fight ISIS in the flatlands. That’s not how they’re structured.
HH: Now Dexter Filkins, as I read your piece, I had considerably more optimism about the Peshmerga’s ability to push ISIS back, maybe even out of Mosul. Do you agree with Ambassador Crocker? Or is he underestimating the Peshmerga’s abilities?
DF: No, he’s right on the money, I think. You know, the Kurds, I think he was, the main point is the Kurds want Kurdistan, and that means holding on to territory where, that are predominate by Kurdish people. And that means probably not going into Arab villages where ISIS predominates. And so if you look at the map of Iraq where ISIS has moved into, they’ve basically focused on areas where they could count on local support, and that means Arabs. They did push in, you know, they took the Mosul Dam, and they pushed into some Kurdish areas, Sinjar. I went to some of those villages, Makhmour, and they were Kurdish. And they’ve been kicked out of most of those villages, because, you know, like, there’s no local supporters, and frankly, when they moved into the Kurdish villages, the Kurdish people just left. So they literally, ISIS moved into these utterly empty villages. But I think, I don’t think the Kurds have the ability to move beyond, much beyond Kurdistan. But frankly, also, I don’t think they have the desire. They just, they want Kurdistan for the Kurds, and I think that’s their main focus. So you can drive now, you know, when I was there, you can, it’s a really weird thing to see. You can drive along the borders of Kurdistan in Iraq, look across that border, and in some cases, it’s a canal. Some cases, it’s just an open field. And there’s ISIS, you know, with their black flag flying. And it’s weird. It feels like the border of another country. But my sense is that border, you know, until the Iraqi Army, and you know, don’t hold your breath for the Iraqi Army, but until they are ready to move into some of those places, I just don’t see the Peshmerga doing it, at least not very far.
HH: Well, as part of your article in the New Yorker, again, it’s linked at Hughhewitt.com, you wrote, “As part of a nascent strategy for taking on ISIS, Obama has agreed to arm the Peshmerga, who despite their reputation, have been radically under-equipped.” That was news to me. “Peshmerga commanders told me that when they rolled into abandoned Iraqi Army bases, they were stunned by the weapons that the Americans have provided.” Evidently, we’ve had a two-track system. The good stuff went to the army that went away, and the Peshmerga got the bad stuff.
DF: Yeah, you know, it’s…the policy of the White House, and I say it’s been the policy of the White House I think through the Bush administration as well, but you know, they want to hold Iraq together. And so that kind of means, you know, everybody says hey, we love the Kurds, the Kurds are great, they love us, they’re democratic, they’re secular, they’re pro-Western and they’re prosperous. But we want them to stay in Iraq. And so we haven’t, we the United States, haven’t wanted to make it too easy for them to leave. And I think that’s the kind of inherent contradiction in the policy now, because I think that the White House now realizes that it has to arm the Kurds, because ISIS is coming, and they’re out there. But at the same time, you know, the Kurds are, they’ve got their own plans. And so that’s the thing. But to answer your question, when you’re there, you see the Peshmerga, it’s true. I mean, they’re, I mean, you had Ambassador Crocker said they’re light infantry. That’s right. They’ve got these little Kalashnikovs from the 70s and the 80s that they’ve captured from the Iraqi Army. They don’t really, they’re not that sophisticated. The difference, though, is that they fight. You know, they’ve got heart. And they have a national feeling which was utterly evident in the Iraqi Army as we saw, because it just basically evaporated.
HH: And on that point, Dexter Filkins, you’re a very wide open critic of the Bush war, the never ending war, your first book. But buried in this article, not buried but in the middle of it, is a conversation with Mohammed Ghafar, a 28 year old soldier who said the army never functioned as well as he had hoped, and it grew much worse after 2011. He had respected the professionalism of the Americans, the training they offered, but, “Everything changed after the Americans left. The commanders steal everything, they sell it in the local market. It is true the absentee rate soared, the rations went bad.” In other words, America leaving in 2011 may have been the worst strategic decision of many bad strategic decisions over the last ten years.
DF: It’s hard to conclude otherwise, you know, because that little, that quote from that deserter that I talked to in Kirkuk, I mean, you can almost say the same thing for all of Iraq. We left, the United States left in 2011. We went to zero, and we left. I mean, we packed up and left. So when you drive around Baghdad now, there is not a trace that the United States was ever there, and I mean apart from the American weapons, but in terms of like American presence and projects and guidance, gone. And I think that we spent almost a decade there. We paid with a lot of lives and a lot of blood, and building, essentially, rebuilding the Iraqi state that we destroyed. And I don’t think it was ready. I mean, it just wasn’t ready to function on its own. And it couldn’t function without us. And actually, Ambassador Crocker, who was on your show, had a really good description of it. He said you know, we build ourselves into the hard drive of the place, and so we, the United States, were the honest broker. We were the only people that could sort of bring all the Iraqi factions together, and then we left. You know, and so the thing doesn’t work without us. And you can see that in Iraq at a micro level, like when I talked to that deserter, who said as soon as the Americans left, the commanders started stealing all the money and everybody left, and everything fell apart. Or you can see it at the macro level. I mean, that’s what’s happened to the Iraqi state.
HH; Let me ask you, Dexter, you’ve spent a lot of time in Afghanistan as well. I had dinner last night with a Marine Corps major just back from Leatherneck, just finished his eight months there. He’s going home, he’s a reservist, and I don’t want to quote him. It’s just, I think we’re doing this again.
HH: We’re going to see a replay of the collapse in Afghanistan of what we’ve seen in Iraq. Do you agree with that?
DF: You know, I have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. And I’m worried that you have essentially the same problem, which is a very fragile state in Afghanistan that basically we’ve built, and it doesn’t work that well, and it doesn’t work without us. And what that means, it doesn’t work without us, yes. You know, it’s just, and if we take the training wheels off, which is to say we leave, and we leave abruptly, I think we’re supposed to go to zero within a couple of years, yeah. I mean, I think there’s a great danger that you’re going to see something on the order of what’s happening now in Iraq.
HH: And will whatever Taliban 2.0 be, be in your estimate, as bad as IS?
DF: That’s a really good question. I think, you know, look, the Taliban, some people say well, they’re more modern than they used to be. Well that’s, I mean, that’s not saying very much.
HH: No, they murdered 4,000 people in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998. They’re butchers, too.
DF: No, no. Yeah, they’re killers. Yeah, absolutely, and I think, you know, and I don’t think they’ll be very gentle with America’s allies in Kabul if they come back in there. But I think…
HH: Hold that thought, Dexter. I’ll be right back.
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HH: Dexter, one of the things you did is you gave me a sense of how the Kurdish leaders would call Maliki and the people around him and say this ISIS thing is really bad. And Maliki, not unlike Obama, had cocooned up and wasn’t letting people talk to him. And it just, it’s not as I imagined it. The Kurds were really trying to get the Shiites to realize they had to bring the Sunnis into the deal or the deal was going to spin wildly out of control. You got right down to the granular level of these phone calls.
DF: Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty dramatic, actually. You know, you had, I mean, Mosul is split, right? The second largest city in Iraq, the western half, the western side of the Tigris River is Arab, and the eastern side is basically Kurdish. And so that was more or less split. You know, the Kurds on one side, and the Arabs on the other And so the Kurds knew, and they’ve got great intelligence, and they knew what ISIS was doing. And ISIS was in the town for months before they invaded. They were, they had essentially had extortion networks set up. I mean, you can call it taxation or extortion, whatever, but they were making a lot of money off of people. They had infiltrated all throughout the city. And so the Kurdish leadership would call Maliki and say you’ve got to do something about this, and do you want us to do something about it? Like we’ll go in there and clean the place up. And Maliki, of course, in his paranoia, didn’t say yes, because he was more concerned that the Kurds, you know, they’d say well, look, if you go in there, are you ever going to leave? And so the result is that nobody did anything. And so there’s this really dramatic moment, you know, in June when ISIS finally rolled in, and after weeks and weeks and months of the Kurds warning them, warning the Maliki government. An aide to Maliki called an aide to the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, and he said can you help us, can you help us? It was 1:00 in the morning. Can you bail us out? Can you send in the Peshmerga? And the Kurdish official said I’m sorry, my friend, but you don’t have an army anymore.
HH: Oh, it’s an amazing piece. Another amazing revelation from your piece, al Qaeda, you write, “in Iraq, was run largely by foreigners. ISIS is run by a council of former Iraqi generals, according to Hisham Alhashimi, an advisor to the Iraqi government, an expert on ISIS, many are members of Saddam Hussein’s secular Baath party who converted to radical Islam in American prisons.” Baghdadi, that’s Abu Barkr al-Baghdadi, “has divided his conquered Iraqi lands into seven vilayets, the name given to each of the provinces in the caliphate. Each vilayet has a governor who answers directly to Baghdadi, but who’s free to launch attacks as he sees fit, no permission is needed.” This is sort of wild. It’s not as though that presents a coherent structure that is difficult to beat. Do you think, Dexter Filkins, that if the American Marines or Army reengage, they’d have much trouble re-subduing and reenlisting Sunni tribes in retaking their land?
DF: Well, yeah. I mean, I think the trick there, or the trouble is we’re not there. You know, we’re not on the ground. And so we’ve kind of seen this movie before. And you just alluded to it. And you know, during the Iraq war, the American war in Iraq, al Qaeda became the strongest insurgent group. And al Qaeda’s just a precursor to ISIS. And in fact, it’s the very same people. It’s basically the guys we didn’t kill. And you know, the Iraqis didn’t like them, and they rebelled against them, and they rebelled against the harsh kind of medieval religion that they’re imposing on everybody. They were offended by their brutality. And what did they do? They went to the Americans, and they said look, we’ll tell you where they live, let’s make a deal. And that was one of the great turning points of the war. And I think that there’s a pretty good chance that’s going to happen again, because I just don’t think the Iraqis are going to buy it. But the problem is that the United States isn’t there anymore, and so you don’t have that kind of firepower to take care of these guys. And what have you got? I mean, you’ve got the Iraqi Army, which you know, we’ve seen what they’re like. I mean, they’re a joke. And so I think, and if you couple that with the hatred that the Sunni Arabs have for the Maliki government, it’s tough. So the plan, I think, the White House plan is just to do it from the sky. And they can kill a lot of people from the air. But in the end, I mean, what’s the end stage?
HH: Well, isn’t the old line of the critics of Bush that if you kill someone from the air, you create a terrorist as well as kill one. I mean, isn’t this the Petraeus-Mattis strategy was different, and you’ve been there a lot. You’ve been covering this war, I mean, your book is The Forever War. I didn’t know it was going to be a forever war. And it is a forever war. Where do you see this going? What’s your prediction?
DF: I think that’s the problem with the strategy right now. If you talk to the White house, they will say that the strikes in Syria are, you know, or that we in the United States, we’re not trying to get involved in this Syrian civil war that’s a bloodbath. It’s a nightmare. It’s too complicated. And we don’t have enough friends there on the ground. But what we can do by striking ISIS in Syria is bolster the government in Iraq, because that’s basically ISIS’ base, supply lines and their money and the oil and everything else. And so but gosh, I, you know, that’s a tough one, because I just, let’s say we wipe out ISIS. You know, let’s say we really, really hurt them. And I think we really, really will hurt them. Who’s going to take over? And I just don’t see the Iraqi Army as being in any position to move into these places for a very long time. And let’s leave Syria aside, because Syria’s just, you know, it’s just a jungle. And so what’s the end stage here? Like what is it? What’s it look like? And how long is it going to take? And I think those are really big questions that haven’t been answered, and I think the guys in the White House are going to be thinking about this one for a long time.
HH: But do you think there’s a competent, I mean, God love Joe Biden, but you don’t want him making national policy here. Is there a competence level of the people around the President in planning? Is he listening to the Pentagon, because it seemed to me that when Mattis spoke out last week, when Petraeus spoke out, even when W. spoke out, they were all saying more, faster, and boots on the ground, or otherwise you’ll never, you’ll have Somalia times ten.
DF: Well, I mean, I think that’s why Obama is acting, even though there are these giant unanswered questions like essentially where does this end, even though because the danger is perceived to be so great from ISIS itself. Like if you just take ISIS and the al Nusra Front, which is basically the al Qaeda franchise in Syria, and then this kind of very crazy, small branch of al Nusra, which is called Khorasan, the White House has basically been very clear that they think that Khorasan was planning a terrorist attack against the United States probably involving airliners, so they took the opportunity when they went after ISIS to go after Khorasan and al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate. And so, and I think, and then if you take ISIS, you have hundreds of foreigners, and I mean Westerners, hundreds of Americans, Brits, French citizens, guys with passports who are fighting for ISIS and for other groups that are like al Nusra, those guys are going to come home, you know, if they survive, if they don’t get killed there. They’re going to come home. And that’s really troubling to the intelligence communities and the guys in the White House. I think they’re scared to death of it. And that’s why they’re acting.
HH: And I hope they act more and more. Dexter Filkins, terrific piece. The Fight Of Their Lives is linked at Hughhewitt.com. Thanks for opening the show with us, Dexter.
End of interview.