Exclusive–Cordesman on Obama's Lack of Strategy Against ISIS: 'Nobody Follows Where Nobody Leads'

Breitbart News spoke Friday with Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about the Islamic State's rapid advances throughout the Middle East and how America and the Western world should concretely respond. 

Dr. Cordesman has served in high-ranking positions in the State Department, the Department of Energy, and NATO, as well as director of intelligence assessment in the office of the Secretary of Defense.

Breitbart News: Last night, White House spokesman Josh Earnest declared that “No,” we are not at war with IS. Are they at war with us, though?

Cordesman: What is war? We haven’t formally declared war recently against anyone. We have, however, seen congressional authorization of the use of force. We have also seen the use of force without the formal passage of legislation, although Congress has always been consulted. The Islamic State obviously is hostile to the United States and her allies. We see the Islamic State as a threat, and we are attacking it. War by another name, or by lack of one, is war.

Breitbart News: Are the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi military forces strong enough with just US air support to defeat the Islamic State?

Cordesman: Air support is currently largely an attempt to stop the Islamic State from advancing. We aren’t using anything close to all of our air assets or attacking anything like the full range of IS targets. We need to broaden operations to deal with the full range of Islamic State targets.

More broadly, the key in Iraq is also going to be to rebuild truly national Iraqi forces. We saw Iraqi forces fall apart under Maliki. They are seen as an enemy force by the Sunnis. They need to be reconstructed, but this time largely on Iraqi terms and in a much more affordable and sustainable form.

Breitbart News: How do we achieve a positive result for United States interests against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq?

Cordesman: We have already gotten the ball rolling. First, we are striking key IS targets inside Iraq from three air bases in the Gulf and a US carrier. We are building up our presence in Iraq – not with combat units, but with advisers, intelligence personnel, enablers for air strikes, and some forward deployed personnel, and to a far larger level than before IS attacked.

The key practical issue in further expanding our role and presence is that the United States cannot hope to contain the Islamic State or defeat it unless it can put an end to the kinds of sectarian abuses that PM Maliki carried out and that created the level of Sunni hostility that allow IS to be so successful in the Sunni areas in Iraq.

We should attack the Islamic State but can't afford to support an Iraqi government in a sectarian war between Sunni and Shiite or between Arab and Kurd. We can’t afford to alienate either Iraqi Sunnis or the Sunni majority in the Arab and Islamic worlds. When it comes to defeating or containing the Islamic State, the fact is that there will be Islamic extremists long after any successful disruption or defeat of the Islamic State, and we need partnerships with all of the major sectarian and ethnic factions.

We also need to step up and broaden the air campaign to become a far more adequate campaign inside Iraq. It needs to be one that attacks the networks and structure of the Islamic State, not simply one that tries to contain it militarily and halt its advance. We need to expand the role of air power to include Islamic State targets in Syria. We need to bring in the targeting and intelligence assets that allow the US to find key targets without the problems of collateral damage and civilian casualties.

Special forces and other US ground elements need to be brought in to help with targeting and work with the Iraqi forces. We need more advisers at every level to help Iraq restructure its ground forces from the bottom-up, ensure it has competent command, and get rid of the elements that attack Sunnis along sectarian lines.

We need to work with the Iraqi government so it can address issues such as federalism and can better deal with the civil and political dimension. We need to reach out to Turkey, our Arab allies, to contain the Islamic State, to shut off its ability to trade and export its banking capabilities. We need a far clearer posture towards supporting the Syrian rebels. As weak as the moderate factions are, they are at least getting the money and weapons so they can begin to present a credible alternative to the extremists.

Breitbart News: Does the US’s hesitancy to expand the operation in Syria and Iraq have to do with domestic “war weariness?”

Cordesman: The polls of American opinion don’t really show that. Recent polls showed the support for the bombing in Iraq was positive and increased with the air campaign.

But far more seriously, the only way you really know what kind of support you can get from Congress and the American people is to take the lead and ask for their support. We haven’t had a White House or a president who has made the case. Not only has he not chosen the strategy, he hasn’t provided leadership. Nobody follows where nobody leads.

Breitbart News: What is the Islamic State’s next target?

Cordesman: There is no one target, and direct military action is only part of the IS strategy. The movement we are now calling the Islamic State or ISIS conducted strikes on the Shiite areas of Iraq long before it moved into the Sunni areas. It has long had ties to Jordan through a mixture of Islamist- and Baath-related movements ever since the US invasion of Iraq.

The movement in Lebanon that is affiliated with the Islamic State is not a direct threat at this point, but it could be in the future, and the Islamic State is going to reach out for contacts and affiliates in any country where it can get traction as well as expand to terrorist attacks in the West. The Islamic State is not going to give up subverting countries and conducting terror attacks, but their key goal remains to consolidate a state inside Syria and Iraq.

Breitbart News: Does Iran have a positive role to play in the ongoing regional violence, or is it helping to stir up even further tension?

Cordesman: At this point, Iran has largely stood aside – providing limited aid to the Iraqis so they could avoid direct contact with the US. Given the role of the IRGC within Iraq, it is not going to be practical to see any close cooperation to move things forward. In fact, I hope that Iran does not reach out in ways to challenge the US by supporting Shiite militias in Iraq who may commit abuses upon Sunnis.

Breitbart News: Now that there has been spillover into the Golan, do you believe Israel will assert itself in the region to ensure its security?

Cordesman: Israel may assert itself to secure the Golan and act against rebels. Israel will likely be careful not to broaden its role further; it has enough problems to deal with in the Gaza. Trying to deal with an Arab-Islamic region is not going to be one of its goals

Breitbart News: What are the lessons from both Iraq wars that we can implement into our strategy to defeat IS?

Cordesman: Here are the lessons:

  • Deal with the true complexity of the civil-military dimension.
  • Face the problems inside a host nation like Iraq when they are almost as much a threat as the Islamic State.
  • Don’t try to create plans that are not conditions-based. 
  • Do create options that are affordable, sustainable, and have measures of effectiveness.
  • Bring in as many Arab allies as possible. Focus on local partners. In this case, they are going to be critical.
  • Understand that this is an ideological and religious war, and that it is not one where our strategic communications can dominate. It’s going to take Islamic countries, clergy, and media to put pressure on the Islamic State. Watch what you are doing resource-wise.
  • Don’t throw vast amounts of money at either the military or civil aspects or act without concrete plans and clear priorities – we did that in the past and it made corruption far worse. 
  • Above all, we need to stop trying to transform the nations we aid and make them do it our way. If they are worth supporting, and serve their people as a whole, we need to help them do it their way.

Breitbart News: What other actors involved in regional hostilities besides IS should we be worrying about?

Cordesman: We need to remember we’re already fighting a low-level war in Yemen in support of the Yemeni central government. We are fighting against Islamic extremists in Afghanistan, and we have a role in Africa, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa.

We clearly need to continue counter-terrorism cooperation with virtually every power in the region. The same Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that is a threat inside Yemen is also a direct threat to Saudi Arabia. Counter-terrorism is a problem for every Arab state.

We need to be very careful about alienating Egypt but also need to continue to press it towards reform. Jordan is essentially the western defense of the Gulf region, and we need to provide them with support. We need to work with allies, to the extent that it is possible, in Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco.

This will be a long struggle that may well go on, from Morocco to the Philippines, for years after we deal with the Islamic State. 

The Islamist terrorist insurgency is likely to be a problem for US, our regional allies, and the world indefinitely into the future.


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