For 23 years, Andrew Bacevich served in the United States Army, beginning during the Vietnam War and and ending in the early 1990s, when he retired during the U.S.’s first foray into the Persian Gulf. Now an emeritus professor of history and international relations at Boston University, he is one of the most outspoken critics of U.S. intervention in Iraq. (His son, an Army First Lieutenant, was killed at the age of 27 by an improvised explosive device in 2007 while serving in Iraq.)
Fault Lines sat down with Bacevich to discuss the U.S. decision to begin airstrikes targeted at the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—also known as ISIL and ISIS—as well as what caused this most recent round of fighting in Iraq. He also discusses why the Iraqi Army is not equipped to handle the threat of ISIL on its own and how American strategy in the region has gone awry. (Fault Lines traveled to Iraq to document the U.S.’s most recent intervention in the region in our new film “Iraq Divided: The Fight Against ISIL,” airing Saturday, October 18, at 7 pm Eastern time/4 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America.)
An edited transcript of Fault Lines’ discussion with Bacevich follows:
Fault Lines: What prompted the U.S. to begin airstrikes against ISIL?
Bacevich: I would say what triggered the airstrikes was the offensive that was seemingly closing in on Baghdad, had taken Mosul, was engaged in these theatrical beheadings, besieging the Yazidis up on a mountaintop. That all of these things together, with a tremendous amount of play given to these events by the American media, created something of a perfect storm that obliged president Obama to act.
Can you explain what happened to the Yazidis? That was kind of the trigger point for military action.
During the second Iraq war, the U.S. forces and the Yazidis developed a fairly friendly relationship. As far as I understand it, the Yazidis provided a disproportionate number of interpreters working for U.S. forces. I have a friend who came to know the Yazidis quite well, and I think that was one of the issues that drew attention toward ISIS, in official circles and amongst civilians—to begin to see ISIS as something that we need to deal with.
Do you think the U.S. involvement in the conflict helped the Yazidis?
I think the U.S., in the sense that U.S. action, both the application of airpower and the relatively small scale humanitarian response, probably did help save some number of Yazidi lives. It’s not as if that momentary crisis led to any long term commitment, and, in that sense, it’s kind of metaphor for U.S. interests in Iraq more broadly—it’s episodic, and when it no longer serves our interests, we forget Iraq just like we forget the Yazidis.
Can you discuss the current state of the Iraqi army?
The U.S. expectation was that once forces withdrew, the Iraqi army would be able to provide minimally adequate security for the state of Iraq. And the ISIS offensive revealed that expectation to be bankrupt. At the time, it didn’t appear to me that ISIS posed a real threat to Baghdad. But it’s clear that the perception existed in Washington that ISIS posed a threat to Baghdad. I think the prospect of the entire state of Iraq falling under the control of ISIS is what prompted the United States to intervene.
My speculation is that we did a reasonable job of imparting skills to Iraqi soldiers. We can teach them how to shoot a rifle, hit a target, apply first aid, dig a foxhole and the like. I don’t think we had the capacity to impart will/motivation. My guess is that the principal factor for the failure of the Iraqi army is that they are not sufficiently motivated to fight and die for their country.
How would you describe the American motivation to ally with certain groups in this conflict?
I would place this third Iraq war, if we want to call it that, in a much wider context. And the wider context is an effort on the part of the United States, dating back to 1980. We set out on this undertaking back in 1980 with only the thinnest understanding of the religious, political and cultural dynamics within that part of the world—a remarkable level of naivete on the part of American policymakers. Our efforts to impose stability inadvertently fostered greater instability, and we have been trying to catch up ever since. And I would argue that down to the present moment, policymakers still do not have a proper grasp of those religious, social, cultural fault lines that actually explain why there is continuing conflict in the region.