The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran is one of the very smartest, most accurate reporters covering the terrorism/war beat in the world today. His piece on the president’s new strategy this morning was the best sourced of all the analyses available (with a key quote from retired USMC General James Mattis.) Chandrasekaran joined me in hour three today to review what the president said and didn’t say:
HH: Right now, though, I’m joined by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who is the senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post. You’ve heard him here before talking about his amazing book, Little America: The War Within The War In Afghanistan. He’s also the author of Imeperial Life In The Emerald City and For Love Of Country. And this morning at the Washington Post, Rajiv’s article, Countering Islamic State Will Be Hard In Iraq And Harder In Syria, probably the most important one of the day. Rajiv, welcome back, good to talk to you.
RC: Good to talk to you.
HH: You got through to Jim Mattis last night, and so you have the best sourced article. Tell us about General Mattis’ assessment, because of all the war fighters out there, he’s the only one I’ve seen quoted in any article today.
RC: Well, because this is a guy who knows that region and knows the military, and is a commander of impeccable reputation. And he is worried that the approach being undertaken whereby the administration is going to rely on air strikes, a modest number of U.S. personnel on the ground, but largely to be in sort of rear echelon training, intelligence, support functions, and then relying on Iraqi forces to do the fighting, to reconstitute themselves and then get into this fight, he worries it’s going to take too long. And he worries that that time will be used by the Islamic State militants to further consolidate, regroup, make preparations so that they can go to ground when attack stuff happens. And I mean go to ground, I mean, turn themselves into more of a insurgency, if you will, allow themselves to go covert. So he worries that it will potentially make the fight a lot tougher.
HH: You also quote an unnamed senior U.S. military official as saying this isn’t going to be as simple as rolling up the highway to Mosul. And I’m not even sure what it is that’s being discussed, but tell me, Rajiv, why you think it will be different from when we engaged with Special Forces and the Taliban using the Northern Alliance troops? The Taliban fell apart in a heartbeat.
RC: Yes, but we had our Special Operators, we had CIA paramilitary forces there, some of them on horseback as we know so well now. They were helping to lead the charge. They were helping to organize the Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan. They were coordinating air support. That’s very important, because U.S. fighter jets can bomb more effectively, U.S. war planes can shoot missiles more accurately when there are U.S. ground forces that are identifying targets and coordinating all that effort. And so when you’re relying on the Iraqi forces to move, that means you cannot offer them close air support to protect them if they come under counterattack. And it means that your air power is going to be limited to sort of try to go after militants and groups who might be out in the open. And one can expect that they will seek cover as soon as that bombing campaign ramps up.
HH: Sure, sure. So Rajiv, you’ve seen, you’ve watched this 13 year war from a very close advantage, and today, I had 25 law students reading The Looming Tower, and they’ve all kind of woken up to the fact that this is the latest iteration of a movement that goes back 50 years. I think Sayyid Qutb was hung in 1966. What do you make of IS as it relates to al Qaeda, as to al Qaeda in the Maghreb, to Somalia’s version, to all the different jihadist groups around? How is IS different? How is it the same?
RC: Well, you know, there’s been all this talk that over there, they’re more extreme than al Qaeda, even some of the al Qaeda folks are renouncing some of IS’ tactics. Well, they’re all part of a piece. And looking at some of the distinctions among them, I don’t think they’re necessarily productive. You know, for instance, in Syria, the Islamist State forces are rivals to the al Nusra Front, which is an al Qaeda-linked rebel group. Well, both of those groups are totally distasteful. And neither one of them are the sorts of organizations that you would want to be running a post-Assad Syrian government. So focusing in on well, are these guys much worse? They’re all radical Islamist militant groups. None of them are really looking for any meaningful compromise with the West. And I think what’s worth noting is that many of our allies in the Gulf, even the government in Saudi Arabia, the folks in the United Arab Emirates, the leadership in Qatar, they all want the Islamic State gone, as do the Iranians. So it’s this, you know, getting the sort of strange bedfellow effect where you have traditional rivals now coming together in common purpose to defeat them.
HH: Rajiv, this is one of the stunners from the President’s talk last night. Here’s what he said.
BO: Now let’s make two things clear. ISIL is not Islamic.
HH: All right, so what did you make of that statement, because it’s generated probably the most dust-up today.
RC: Well, look, they are. They are Muslims. They are Islamic. But I think what the President was trying to say there is that they don’t represent the majority of Muslims. The majority of Muslims on our planet are not gun-toting, warmongering people who want to go out and kill others. I have many, many Muslim friends. They’re all peaceful people. So I think what the President was trying to do is to draw a distinction to say that their actions don’t comport with mainstream Muslim ideology or teaching…
HH: But that…
RC: Now hey look, you can find certain references in the Koran and what not of the jihad. Yes, but I don’t think they represent the majority worldview of most Muslims.
HH: I agree with that, and I think almost every American agrees with that. There’s a fringe, obviously, that will disagree with that, but we all get that. I’m more alarmed, does he really understand the nature of the enemy in the way that Lawrence Wright and you understand the nature of the enemy, or Jake Tapper, anyone who’s spent a long time studying, writing, reading about it? I don’t know that the President gets it. Mike Pompeo came on the show last night, and he was shaking his head saying this is just not consistent with understanding how dangerous this virulent strain of Islamist extremism is.
RC: Well, the one thing, so if that causes you concern, I do think that when you look at some of the President’s other language where he says look, our goal is to defeat them, to destroy them, that’s important, that we didn’t hear from him hey look, we’re going to get to a point where he can engage in political dialogue with ISIL. We’re not hearing that, and that’s good, because I don’t think that group is one that actually has any interest in wanting to engage in political dialogue.
RC: I mean, we’ve talked before about, you know, maybe the Taliban in Afghanistan would engage in a peace process. Yes, that may happen. But not these guys in Iraq and Syria.
HH: And so at the end of the day, do you think they have a strategy? Or was this the President’s somewhat ham-handed attempt to make up for his announcement publicly that he didn’t have a strategy, yet?
RC: Well, I think you know, they certainly made a big deal about this in an effort to try to do some damage control over the ‘don’t have a strategy, yet’ comment. This is still the very early days of a strategy. You know, there are a lot of big, open questions here. We don’t know how long it’s going to take for the Iraqi Army to come back together. We don’t even know who’s going to be running the defense or the interior ministries there. There’s a big process of political compromise that have to take place there. We don’t have good targets in Syria. And we don’t know how much a campaign against the Islamic State in Syria will wind up indirectly emboldening the Assad government. There’s so many unknowns here, so to sort of call this a fully-fleshed out strategy is a real overstatement. This is the beginnings of an effort, and the bigger questions, in my mind, are going to be to what degree do we resource the air campaign? If it looks like the Iraqi forces are going to need additional help? Will that be forthcoming? And are we going to be able to generate the necessary intelligence? And will our allies come together and help out, both European and those in the Gulf?
HH: Last question, and it has to do with Kurdistan and Turkey. Last night, the President made a distinction between Iraq and Kurdistan, which I thought was significant. Are we, in your opinion, sending everything we can get there to there? And number two, do we have a strategy for bringing Turkey back into NATO, which in essence, they’ve left?
RC: Yeah, well, Turkey’s going to be interesting here, because Turkey’s very worried, because there are a number of Turkish nationals who are being held hostage by the Islamic State. And we need Turkey’s help. We need Turkey’s help, because we need them to crack down on oil smuggling from the Islamic State forces. We need, we obviously need Turkey as a key partner in training the Free Syrian Army. And so that’s going to be a real big challenge in the allied effort there. The language on Kurdistan is very, very interesting, and it looks like the administration is moving toward accepting that the tactile reality that Kurdistan is going to essentially spin off from Iraq. The Kurds are smart. They’re not going to be hasty and doing anything right away, but we are starting to see that de facto move. And I think when you listen carefully to the President’s words and the words of others at senior levels of the U.S. government, they’re starting to accept that reality.
HH: I thought so, too. Rajiv, thank you for joining us, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the senior correspondent, associated editor at the Washington Post, author of Little America, a book you ought to have read by now, if you haven’t. And you can follow him on Twitter, @RajivWashPost.
End of interview.