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“You don’t need a moral obligation to kill those fuckers”

James F Jeffrey. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP/Press Association Images

Let’s first put this headline quote by James F Jeffrey, the former US ambassador to Iraq, into context. Straight after saying it he quipped that we should use it as a quote. Which we’ve done, of course, mostly because it’s so unusual to hear former senior diplomats speak in such an undiplomatic way.

We’re currently working on an article on the rise of ISIS in June, a month that saw the Sunni militants take several Iraqi cities before declaring the formation of an Islamic caliphate. James F Jeffrey was the US ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He’s angry about ISIS (which he calls by its alternative name, ISIL) and in recent weeks he has been strongly advocating US air strikes on ISIS targets. We spoke to him on Wednesday night about the situation in Iraq. Here’s the transcript:

How were ISIS militants able to take Tikrit and Mosul with such ease?

First of all, they’re a very mobile, combat experienced, self-confident group of people who are willing to die, and they combine a lot of skills including what we call fire and manoeuvre in the military by using pickup trucks and captured Humvees. They’re very good with mortars and they have suicide bombers blowing their way into targets; that’s what they used yesterday [Tuesday 12th August]  in Jalawla to drive the Kurds out. They’ve got good intelligence as well. It’s a combination of all these things and it’s basically a blitzkrieg tactic. That’s why they did well.

Now, if they’d been up against the American army they would have had their heads handed to them. The American army would have stood and fought, but you’re dealing with Iraqi troops who are badly led from their generals right up to Maliki. They’re unmotivated. They were very, very badly trained. Most of them didn’t even have basic training skills, for example marksmanship and that sort of thing, individual fire and manoeuvre. You’d see the pictures; they’d just shut their eyes and empty the magazine. And they had almost no combined arms training. This was an army that did not know how to manoeuvre. It was a checkpoint army.

It was an army designed for internal security and for any actual operations they relied on the high-end special operations people, who are very good. They’re effective around Fallujah and a band of them is still holding up in Baiji. They’re very different to the rest of the Iraqi army but there are only a few units of that calibre.

So, you’ve got crappy leadership with a failure of courage, a failure of sang-froid. Obviously they could have held there and traded rounds until they killed these guys because there are many more of them, but that’s not how armies work. Armies are creatures of psychology, so they collapsed that way, and when they started collapsing in west Mosul, people got the impression that the ISIL guys are unbeatable.

The Iraqi army in Anbar, who’ve been fighting ISIL since Fallujah fell – and Fallujah didn’t fall because the army ran, it was because Maliki pulled them out – have become used to fighting ISIL and while they haven’t been successful at taking ground back from them, which is very hard, they’re pretty successful at holding their own ground. The troops up in the north didn’t have any of that experience and they just caved. It was mass panic.

When President Obama withdrew troops and made his speech marking the end of the war in December 2011, he spoke of a stable Iraq with a professional military. Was he misleading us?

No, because Iraq wasn’t in a terrible state then. First of all, President Obama didn’t withdraw the troops. Bush signed an agreement to have all troops out by the end of 2011. I recommended, as did our commander in the field, General Austin, that we keep some troops on. The Iraqi government agreed to a limited troop presence that would have done exactly the things they need: training, equipping, some counter-terrorism direct action, and we would have had some F16s – all the things they’re lacking we would have had.

Most importantly, we would have had intention, and we would have had an idea of what was going on with the Iraqi army. A sensible purpose of those troops would be to train the Iraqis and maintain the level of proficiency we had gotten them to in the prior two years. They were pretty well trained and had pretty good leaders although we were seeing some erosion because leaders were being chosen for political purposes.

They weren’t in bad shape in 2011 – the country was basically at peace apart from the remnants of the al-Qaeda movement launching suicide bombs every now and then but nothing too serious, and it had a large military system, a constitutional system and, yes, it was full of bumps but so was South Korea, so was Taiwan etc etc.

I don’t think President Obama was misleading anybody. What he couldn’t calculate were three things: One, Maliki got worse and worse as a prime minister and a military commander, alienating the Kurds and the Sunnis, and basically undercutting any kind of independent or competent military leader and replacing them with his hacks and loyalists, and micromanaging decisions and not making decisions. It was just awful. The second thing is the situation in Syria slipped out of control largely because the United States did not play a role. Obviously there are a zillion problems with playing a role, but the role we’re talking about is like the one the Reagan administration played in Afghanistan – you bomb the opposition and you create havoc for the people you don’t want to win, which are on the one hand central government supported by the Russians and Iranians, and on the other hand the extremists. And we didn’t do that, and so the space was occupied – and here’s the third element – by the ISIL group, the remnants of the Al-Qaeda in Iraq group. They were very successful militarily in Syria and they gained a lot of support both in the country among resistance groups and also in the Arab community because they were fighting the Shia and al-Assad, and they got a lot of weapons and money. And they were then able to enter Iraq and perform the way we’ve seen them perform.

Shouldn’t the ISIS capture of Fallujah in January have been a clear warning of what was coming?

It was taken as a clear warning to me and by the Iraqi government. The government didn’t do much about its military but what it did do is ask the US government for assistance, and of course almost all the pundit community, including me, were bashing our heads telling the US administration that you’re going to have to act on this. But the administration did essentially nothing until Mosul fell.

How much of a contributing factor to Iraq’s problems has the al-Maliki administration, widely seen as anti-Sunni, been?

I think there are those three main factors I mentioned earlier and then there are thousands of secondary factors. One reason why Maliki is such a difficult, non-inclusive and sectarian person is because everybody he’s dealing with is that way too. Even Masoud Barzani [president of the Kurdish autonomous region] is, in his own way; he’s just much better at covering it in sugar. Talabani [Jalal Talabani, president of Iraq until last month] was good; Saleh al-Mutlaq [deputy prime minister] was good; in his own weird way Chalabi [Ahmed Chalabi, discredited former opposition leader] was too. Those are all people who understood that you can’t just support your own sectarian group. But they’re in a minority. The vast majority of politicians including Ayad Allawi [former prime minister] and to some extent Masoud Barzani pursue sectarian and religious objectives.

In your experiences of dealing with Maliki, what sort of character is he?

He’s very insecure and untrusting, but that’s how you become a leader in medieval systems. Maliki’s the kind of guy who’d have a food taster.

You could do deals with him but they were transactional; it would be ‘we need x, this is why we need x, can you give us x?’ and if you could explain it he would be pretty good. It was hard getting a commitment from him, but he did live up to commitments. That’s a big plus. That’s another reason we, well, I can’t say ‘stayed with him’ because that implies that he was ours to leave or drop. One reason we didn’t try harder to get rid of him, bearing in mind that he was a democratically elected prime minister of a constitutional country whose constitutional democracy we had put a lot of effort into setting up, was not that we didn’t seem to have an alternative – most of the alternatives seemed to share some of his traits – but also because in a transactional way you could do business with him.

Do you think the US has a moral obligation to help Iraq fight ISIS?

Of course we do. These are people who made decisions – the Kurds, the Yazidis, the Shia – based on the assumption that the United States would support and fight for a constitutional government, which with Maliki they began losing, and against these demons in ISIL. So yeah, I think we do have a moral obligation, and it’s not like I’m saying ‘send another 170,000 troops and let’s kill another 400 to 500 Americans’. We’ve done these bombing campaigns repeatedly. We did them in Libya, we did them in Kosovo, we did them in northern Iraq in 1991 and 2003, in Bosnia, in Vietnam in 72. We provided close air support and interdiction for friendly non-American forces on the ground and in each case we succeeded, and at essentially no cost.

Other than Vietnam where a couple of planes were shot down, and I’m not talking about the bombing campaign against Hanoi, which was a complementary strategy that Nixon did. I’m talking about using your air force to beat somebody else’s artillery on the ground, which is a very effective strategy when you are on the defensive. When they’re travelling in columns with heavy weapons in a kind of conventional way against our friends who tend to be lightly armed then you can see that air power makes all the difference.

We have a moral obligation to expend some ordinance on people who you or I and almost everybody we know in this world are going to be much better off if they are dead – and the sooner the better. You don’t need a moral obligation to kill these fuckers. How’s that? Use that as a quote.

It’s going on the front page! You lived in Iraq, you know Iraqis, you know the terrain. How would you describe your emotional connection to the country and how do you feel to seeing parts of it being overrun by militants?

There was recently a book out reviewed by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post by a Boston Globe foreign correspondent called HDS Greenway who’s been very famous over the years, and he wrote that in the case of most foreign correspondents who worked in the second half of the 20th century Vietnam was the place they were most attached to. I have an emotional attachment to Vietnam from my time there, and an emotional attachment to Germany where I first served in the army and where I met my wife.

I do not have an emotional attachment to the many years I served in the Arab world and my many years in Turkey. I have personal friendships with many people and I have a general appreciation for the societies and the cultures and what they’ve accomplished, particularly the Kurds in the north and in Turkey.

But I have a Hegelian, Hobbesian view of the world and it’s a dialectic of good and evil and often the evil wins, and so a lot of the people who have emotional attachments to things think that it’s inevitable that good wins and therefore when it doesn’t – and boy, Iraq’s a case of it not winning – it’s has to be betrayal, failure or whatever. But it isn’t. It’s just the way the cards come up.

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