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ISIS Threat Is 'Extremely Worrying' Says Counter-Insurgency Expert


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And we begin this morning in Iraq where ISIS militants are on the offensive in Anbar province taking over key cities. The U.S. has kept its distance from the fight in Anbar, instead focusing airstrikes against ISIS militants in the Syrian border town of Kobani. Our next guest says that's a grave mistake.

John Nagl is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. He fought in both Iraq wars and is a co-author of the Army's Counterinsurgency Manual, which helped shape the U.S. strategy in Iraq. Nagl says the U.S. has to put ground troops back into Iraq to fight for Anbar again. He remembers back to the early days of the fighting there in 2003.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL JOHN NAGL: The fight was everywhere and nowhere. It was an enormously difficult challenge. I'd study counterinsurgency at Oxford. I thought I understood the problem, but when I tried to do it myself for the first time, I found that I was fighting ghosts. So my men were getting blown up, shot by snipers, hit by indirect fire, mortars and artillery rounds and rockets. And we couldn't figure out who we were fighting. It was far, far more difficult in my first war in Iraq, Desert Storm, where we simply shot the tanks that didn't look like ours.

MARTIN: Things started to shift in Anbar then the following year. The United States partnered with the Sunni sheikhs of Anbar, who were sick and tired of fighting al-Qaida. That idea of forming those local alliances, winning hearts and minds - that was something that was central to the counterinsurgency strategy, no?

NAGL: It was, and it was an extraordinary accomplishment I think. So the Sunni tribes had been fighting against us and the Shia-dominated government of Iraq that we helped install. There was another fight go on simultaneously in the same battle space against al=-Qaida in Iraq; a much more hardened partisan jihadi organization. And ultimately, the Sunnis decided that it was in their interest to partner with us against al-Qaida in Iraq.

MARTIN: So now when you look at what's happening in Anbar, ISIS has taken over Fallujah, which is a space, as you know, the U.S. fought very hard - some of the bloodiest battles of the war.

NAGL: Some of the bloodiest fighting since Vietnam; a place where I lost friends. And that is absolutely sickening to me that more men are going to have to fight and die to reclaim from form radical Islamists ground that we had taken more than once from them. And the really sickening thing about all of this is that this was all entirely predictable and entirely preventable.

MARTIN: Setting aside - which understand is significant - but setting aside the fact that the administration decided not to keep a residual force, is there something to be said for the limitations of the counterinsurgency strategy itself if that alliance that you formed with the Sunni-sheikhs, it didn't hold - the strategy wasn't able to hold the peace.

NAGL: The strategy could have held the peace, but we both rushed into Iraq, which was a mistake. We didn't need to invade in 2003. And we rushed out of Iraq at the end of 2011. Counterinsurgency strategies work, but they're very expensive, and they take a very long time, and they require the commitment of U.S. troops for at least a generation and probably longer.

MARTIN: A generation?

NAGL: A generation. But you raise your eyebrows at me, but even after conventional wars, after the Second World War, the U.S. still more than 60 years later, has troops in Italy, Germany and Japan.

MARTIN: How many troops need to go and where do they need to be deployed?

NAGL: So we need about 15,000 American advisers on the ground in Iraq in 12- to 20-man teens.

MARTIN: You don't want them in bases safely ensconced. You're talking about...

NAGL: That's insufficient. The Iraqi forces are currently engaged in close combat with ISIS forces. They are incapable without the American assistance of intelligence assets that American advisers can't have immediate access to. Communications devices have allowed us to talk to airplanes and multiply the effectiveness of the airstrikes that we're currently making. There is going to be a cost associated with this, but there's also some urgency here.

MARTIN: You're calling for another war in Iraq?

NAGL: There is another war in Iraq right now that the president has said we have to win, and he's correct. The threat to the United States is not immediate, but the long-term threat is extremely worrying. ISIS is right now the marquee name in global jihad. It is more dangerous to the United States than al-Qaida. They've advanced across Iraq with extraordinary rapidity. And the danger is real and growing, and it's long-term.

MARTIN: But you know that the polls suggest that Americans have no appetite for a generational commitment to Iraq when it comes to ground troops.

NAGL: While that is true, they depth of feeling is not very high. So the president has the extraordinary advantage of having an all-volunteer force that is as battle tested, as battle trained as any force the United States has ever had. And these guys know, they understand what we're asking them to do. They're willing to stay there and occupy Iraq. They're not super psyched about it, but they'd rather do that than have their sons have to fight yet again for Fallujah.

MARTIN: Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. His new book is called "Knife Fights: A Memoir Of Modern War In Theory And Practice." He joined us in our studios here in Washington. Thank you so much for talking with us, John.

NAGL: Good to be with you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.