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Military historian: US policy in Islamic world has been a failure

Retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich discusses the US fight against ISIL, 'the third Iraq War'

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.

Kurdish peshmerga fighters prepare to launch an attack on the northeastern Iraqi town of Jalula, which ISIL had recently taken.
Josh Rushing for Al Jazeera America

There are a lot of different groups on the front lines. Do you think the other groups are going to use this fight to pursue their own interests?

Of course. Iraq now qualifies not as a country, but more as a coalition of groups. In any war involving a coalition, members of the coalition are going to fight when they want to fight, fight for what they value. That’s just sort of the way politics works.

Why do you think ISIS seems to have found supporters and sympathizers among Sunnis in Iraq?

My sense is that this reflects the absence of a legitimate government in Iraq that can attract the support of all the various sectarian and ethnic groups that constitute Iraq. And of course this is further effort of the failure of the Iraq war. But the expectation when we invaded in 2003 was not simply that we were going to be able to overthrow Saddam Hussein—that was, relatively speaking, the easy part—but we also expected that, having disposed of Saddam Hussein, we would also be able to insert a new political order that would be relatively stable, relatively democratic and able to command the allegiance of the Iraqi people. And we didn’t get that done.

What would have happened if these guys would have captured the Kurdish capital of Irbil?

American air power alone is not going to be enough to turn the tide. That success requires partnering with a force on the ground, and the peshmerga (Kurdish militants) tends to be featured pretty high on that roster of friendly ground forces that we want to partner with. Now the peshmerga’s record in the past six weeks has not been so impressive. But had Irbil fallen, had, in essence, Kurdistan fallen, the peshmerga would not have been available for the United States to use as a surrogate, which would have made the task that much harder.

Could airstrikes that actually degrade the Islamic State be a victory for the U.S.?

They would be a victory in the tactical sense. We would succeed in eliminating this vile, vicious group. But that vile, vicious group didn’t come out of nowhere. My sense is that ISIS emerged from a particular set of conditions that are endemic to that part of the world. What are those conditions? Well, political dysfunction, economic underdevelopment, social alienation, the residue of European imperialism, the effects of which are still present and problematic. All these entities together produce ISIS.

What policy should the U.S. be pursuing in response to ISIL?

I tend to answer questions like that by putting U.S. policy in this broader context, the context of post-1980 U.S. military efforts not simply in Iraq but in any number of places in the Islamic World. If we take this entire effort together, and say what have we achieved—if the aim is to bring stability, to bring democracy, to dominate or control—however you describe the aim, we haven’t achieved it. And I believe it is past time Americans recognize that this military effort has failed. And the failure is irredeemable.

So the place to begin moving toward a wiser policy is to recognize that our military efforts are counterproductive, that we have to lower our profile in this region—quite frankly, that we need to recognize that the fate of people in the Middle East needs to be determined by the people who live in the Middle East, and it is extremely arrogant for us to think we can solve their problems. At the end of the day, they’re going to decide their fate, and we need to get out of the way and protect ourselves from any adverse consequences of them solving their problems. I think the place to begin moving toward a sensible policy is to demilitarize U.S. policy in the region.

In "Iraq Divided: The Fight Against ISIL," Fault Lines travels to Irbil to examine the consequences of the latest U.S. intervention in Iraq. The film airs on Al Jazeera America Saturday, October 18, at 7 p.m. Eastern time. It will air again that evening at 10 p.m. Eastern and Sunday, October 19, at 2 a.m. Eastern.   

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