Iraq, ISIS, and Shaping a Brighter Future


2017-02-02 By Ed Timperlake and Robbin Laird

President Trump has made it clear that a key priority in national defense is the defeat of ISIS.

We have argued in an earlier piece that victory over ISIS can be conceived as follows:

“Cutting the Gordian knot of endless engagement is crucial; modernizing insertion forces that can strike at any concentrations of Daesh forces is crucial as well.

It is about dramatically stopping their influence and impact from a force which claims to be a state and reducing them to an impoverished band seeking refuge, and having nowhere to go on the globe where they are welcome.”

Before President Trump’s national security team launches a full scale global assault against Daesh, we thought it important to engage with three very senior Iraqis, now American citizens, who could benchmark the situation left behind by the Obama Administration and it is challenging to say the least.

The situation is quite different when Donald Trump took office versus Obama.

Notably, the emergence of ISIS, the return of Russia to the Middle East, the reinforcement of the regime of Assad by a mixture of internal and external means, the expanded presence of Iran outside of its borders (with a nuclear agreement providing some top cover), Turkey’s President having survived a coup and de facto supporting ISIS, and the continued fragmentation of Iraq all create a very difficult situation within which to shape an effective way ahead. And the Israelis are facing a growing threat from an Iranian backed Hezbollah force.

A key change from the past President to the new one is that the new one is facing an Iranian-dominated Baghdad government as part of the equation as well and are fighting ISIS for internal religious as well as geopolitical reasons.

The head of the Iraqi Army is an Iranian.

Shaping a way ahead will clearly require a phased approach as well as shaping clarity with regard to the end game.

Endless engagement is not on for the U.S. and allied positions.

And coming to terms with the outpouring of refugees from the region has led to domestic stress in both the United States and in Europe.

There is little doubt that the German Chancellor’s decision on opening the European floodgates to refugees was a key input to the Brexit decision by the British voters.

Donald Trump has indicated that he is not satisfied with the current NATO structure.  He has indicated that he wants to ramp up and intensify the pressure on ISIS, is distrustful of Iran (the NSC Director Mike Flynn just put them on notice with their recent missile launch) and may well annul the agreement with Iran. And President Trump is unwavering in expressing strong support for Israel.

In this context, what can be done in Iraq?

In fundamental ways it could be the inflection point to future regional stability.

One of the great truths in developing insightful national security objectives is that there is one thing worse than no intelligence and that is bad intelligence.

Thankfully a Congressman who President Trump just appointed to be the Director of the CIA Mike Pompeo called out bad Iraq Intel as a significant failure in shaping effective policy.

“From the middle of 2014 to the middle of 2115, United States Central Command’s most senior intelligence leaders manipulated the command’s intelligence products to downplay the threat from ISIS in Iraq.”

The quote comes from a New York Times article by Helene Cooper published on Aug 11 2016 article with the title “Military Officials Distorted ISIS Intelligence, Congressional Panel Says.”

To get some sense of what can be done in the presence of a deteriorating situation in Iraq without repeating the large U.S. and UK buildup which failed to turn Iraq into a stable power, we talked with three knowledgeable Iraqis who are now American citizens. Their lifetime courage is assumed, their judgment and insights well-earned and they most certainly put a strong “ground truth” marker down.

Joseph Kassab visiting Capital Hill.

The first was Joseph Kassab who has worked for many years on the issue of how best to protect Christians in the Arab World facing extinction at the hands of ISIS.

The second was General (Retired) Munthir Nalu. He served in the Iraqi Army until 1991 and since then has significant experience working with US forces operating in the region. He progressed through the ranks to become a four star general until his retirement.

The third was General David Barno (Retired) who was also worked extensively with US forces on counter-terrorism issues in the region.

We started first by a fact-finding discussion prior to turning to thinking through possible ways ahead.

The Iraq situation is difficult in many ways, but most notably, with regard to any outside power, which wishes to help, the key one is that the Iraqi government is more than a flawed instrument.

It is riddled with corruption, is increasingly under Iranian influence, and the Army is increasingly a Dawa Party instrument where ranks are purchased.

Generals Nalu and Barno as seen in the office of Joseph Kassab.

It is not an Iraqi national army in any real sense and certainly not a cohesive instrument to provide security for the Iraqi people writ large.

“We need the American stick to deal with the corruption problem. There was a strategic planning agreement between the US and Iraq which could be reactivated to deal with corruption. Without the support from the United States, there is no way to fix the Iraqi government as currently supported by the Iranians. American support needs to get more involved in the politics in Iraq to put it back in track.”

“Iraq can not be rebuilt with the current Iraqi government in charge. Iranian influence is simply too dominant.”

The Generals highlighted that increasingly the Iraqi Army has become a Dawa-party dominated force.

All three were also adamant that the Baghdad Government with the Iranian influence specifically encourages lying to American leaders.

This was stressed as a very significant fact in any ISIS fight in Iraq.

To be clear the Islamic Dawa Party is identified as follows by Wikipedia.

The Islamic Dawa Party, also known as the Islamic Call Party is a political party in Iraq.

Dawa and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council are two of the main parties in the religious-Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, which won a plurality of seats in both the provisional January 2005 Iraqi election and the longer-term December 2005 election.

The party is led by Nouri al-Maliki, who was Prime Minister of Iraq between 20 May 2006 and 8 September 2014.

The party backed the Iranian Revolution and also Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the Iran–Iraq War and the group still receives financial support from Tehran despite ideological differences with the Islamic Republic.

In such a situation, it is clear that the former U.S. policy of backing Baghdad and training a national army is not one, which one would wish to try again.

With an Iranian backed Iraqi force fighting ISIS, there is clearly a major problem facing the U.S. and the allies in trying to both defeat ISIS and to build out a non-Iranian dominated Iraq.

“The Iranian backed forces are perceived by many Iraqis as having saved Baghdad from ISIS. The new Administration needs to show more support to the Iraqi people to counter the Iranian attempt at an Iraqi takeover.”

But realistically, what will the United States do given there is no appetite to return to Iraq and become yet again an occupation Army with the hope that Iraq will be transformed into a more democratic state?

If it is difficult to work with a cohesive partner dedicated to the territorial integrity of an Iraq, which can eradicate ISIS, what other options are possible?

We focused on the fight for MOSUL, where the forces fighting against ISIS are organized under different leaders with different approaches and interests.

ISIS graffiti is painted on walls and nurseries around the city brainwashing those living there and claiming the terror group will defeat its enemies
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We discussed the possibility of focusing on U.S. and Allied efforts to organize the fight to retake MOSUL and to provide for provincial independence of the city and the surrounding region as well as Kurdistan as perhaps focal points to providing for areas from which to organize force to fight ISIS.

The priority needs to be placed on the fight against ISIS; the 101st Airborne earlier showed the way with regard to MOSUL, perhaps it is time to organize the indigenous forces for this particular battle.

“There are about four major forces fighting to take over MOSUL from ISIS. A key element of military operations is unity of command; this is simply not the case in the current MOSUL fight. There is a need a common commander in order to be successful.”

By shaping as common a force as possible, the strategic long-term goal of shaping a secular army to support the Iraqis could be supported as well.

If ISIS is decisively defeated in MOSUL, what might be its impact on the broader fight?

With success in liberating MOSUL, the broader Nineveh Plain will become very vulnerable to a fight between the Kurds and the arabs to control.

“Who will take control over the administration of the MOSUL, Nineveh Plain and the Kurdish areas?”

Perhaps shaping a more independent sector within the older Iraq is a key way ahead as a key building block to the defeat of Isis.

Let us be clear this is not a prelude to a return to a very large U.S. force in Iraq.

It is about security a safe city; the problem of the Baghdad government remains a difficult one. But liberating Mosul and working for its security and provincial independence a step could put forward in place.

President Trump greeting Joseph Kassab.

The Generals also suggested that they were prepared to work with the U.S. to set up a refugee support center in Iraq from which a broader effort could be scoped out and shaped as well.

This type of a indigenous refugee task force building safe area’s in Iraq can also encapsulate President Trump’s recognition that the deadly threats to Christians have been woefully overlooked until he became President.

Such a task force was put forth by all three Iraq experts, and they well earned the right to be part of such a process.

This type of a indigenous refugee task force building safe area’s in Iraq can also encapsulate President Trump’s recognition that the deadly threats to Christians have been woefully overlooked until he became President. Such a task force was put forth by all three Iraq experts, and they well earned the right to be part of such a process.

The more general point is that one needs to shape building blocks towards an effective outcome; progress will come in steps rather than jumping to a virtually impossible end state – namely an integrated Iraq governed by a responsible, non-corrupt Baghdad government.

We asked as well about perceptions of Russia and its role.

Their very strong point was that the Russian role was largely a positive one with regard to the fight against ISIS.

“We are hoping that there will be a good relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin for it will help to defeat ISIS. Russians have clearly attacked ISIS in the area. They are clearly against ISIS because of the role of the Chechens within Russia itself.”

But clearly Turkey is in play as well.

Donald Trump’s concern about NATO could come into play here as a tough love policy toward Turkey and its use of NATO to shield it from the under the table role in supporting ISIS.

“Turkey wants to shape a no fly zone on its border in part because this allows free movement of ISIS into and out of Turkey.

The Turkish government provides logistical support to ISIS. In effect, they provide a corridor for the movement of ISIS forces.”

This suggests that the use of sea bases and the use of U.S. airpower not based in Turkey.

Recently, Lt Gen Dave Deptula USAF (ret) underscored g the value of long rang USAF strike to deal with the ISIS movement in and out of Turkey which provides clearly a better option than a politically limited airpower force operating from Turkish airbases.

If there was ever a good argument for the sea base and long rang strike mitigating USAF airpower being held hostage by Turkey , it is the fight against ISIS in Iraq and the evolving possibly of avoiding the need for bases and contiguous transit routes notably in and out of Turkey.

President Trump has raised questions about the future of NATO – clearly the current Turkish government’s support to ISIS is a key element challenging the validity of the current role of Turkey within the Alliance.

With the background of heightened tensions between Israel and the Iran/ Hezbollah forces, the projection of Iranian power in Syria and Iraq could face a double challenge – one from Israel and the other from Iraq with the use of sea bases as well as the establishment of a small number of sanctuaries from which pressure on Iranian-backed force could be generated as well.

We concluded by discussing the situation facing Christians in the area.

As Joseph Kassab underscored: “The Christians are clearly religious refugees who should get priority in any Administration consideration with regard to immigrant status. It is not a question of internecine war of Muslims versus Muslims; in the case of Christians it is about radical Islam following a policy of genocide. And President Trump has clearly indicated his support for the plight of Christians in the ISIS-generated genocide.”

Kassab then concluded by underscoring the concept of a phased approach makes a great deal of sense. He then identified the priorities in the following order: defeating ISIS; reducing significantly Iranian presence and influence in Iraq; reducing significantly the influence of Turkey in Iraq; align the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government in the rebuilding of Iraq with Western efforts as well.

In short, the Trump Administration and the allies face a difficult road ahead.

But by reconfiguring the coalition to fight ISIS there are clearly new possibilities to ramp up the fight.

Biography of Joseph Kassab

He was born in Telkaif- Nineveh, Northern Iraq in 1952 to a Chaldean Catholic family. In 1975 earned his undergraduate degree with excellence from College of Science-University of Baghdad.

This qualified him for graduate studies program at College of Medicine-University of Baghdad to again become the first on his class and earn in 1979 Master of Science degree in Medical Microbiology and Immunology under the auspices of the Royal College of Medicine-UK .

Map on the wall of the office of Joseph Kassab showing Christian churches and settlements in Iraq.

He was then hired as assistant professor at the same college, but the regime in Iraq demanded that he joins the ruling party, when he refused he was threatened and his position was downgraded.

When the threats continued and the intimidations intensified he decided to flee Iraq and join in Rome, Italy his two brothers, a pharmacist and an engineer who earlier faced similar challenges to seek asylum. Later on in 1980 they were resettled in the U.S as refugees.

In the U.S, Joseph continued his education by acquiring Graduate Certificate (GC) in Community Education Leadership from Wayne State University, under the auspices of the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) in Washington D.C.

He also pursued an intensive curriculum in political science at Wayne State University.

While doing all of this he worked for 25 years as Bio-medical researcher and instructor at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine.

He is currently the Chief Science Officer of Nano-Engineering and Consulting Co.

From 2005-2012, he served as the Executive Director of the Chaldean Federation of America (CFA) ( where he has dealt with a number of issues affecting Iraqi Christians in Iraq. He started his advocacy, consultancy, and humanitarian work on the plight of the Christians of Iraq and the Middle East since his arrival in the United States in 1980.

Biography of General Nalu

General Nalu has 32 year’s experience managing people and resources in a military setting. He is a retired Chief ranking officer in the Iraqi Army. He has been a military advisor and interpreter with the US Army for nearly nine years. He was Deputy Program Manager for the Military Advisor Support Team (MAST). In this role, he was involved in the rebuilding of the Iraqi Army and the training of Iraqi Army Staff officers embed in the Military transition Teams working with Iraqi Army Division and Operation Commands HQ to develop the combat capabilities of the Iraqi Army.

Biography of General Barno

General Barno has worked extensively with the US Army in the rebuilding of the Iraqi Army. He has worked with the 486th Civil Affairs battalion, the 506th Regimental Combat Team, the 1st Brigade Combat Team and with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

Col Robert “Juice” Newton USAF (ret), a fighter and test pilot, with significant  combat service in both Iraq and Afghanistan, was an important and insightful member of the conference call. He highlighted the possibility of leveraging the Mosul initiative to shape a building block towards shaping in effect a secular armed forces which could then gain trust of the Iraqi people.  That could be set as a long term goal, with the saving of Mosul and the expansion of stability into the Ninevah plain as a beginning step to that journey.

(For an article by Newton which we published in 2011 on the ballistic missile threat which unfortunately Iranian actions just recently highlighted the relevance of to evolving U.S. and allied policy, see the following:

As the Trump Administration works through changes in U.S. immigration policy, one priority identified by the President is reversing the last Administration’s approach to Christian refugees.

As the President noted with regard to Christians in the region:

“They’ve been horribly treated. Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough to get into the United States?
“If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible and the reason that was so unfair, everybody was persecuted in all fairness, but they were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians.
And I thought it was very, very unfair.”

For earlier articles of interest, please see the following:

Editor’s Note: The Turkish challenge underscores the importance of NOT operating aircraft from Turkish bases, highlights in turn the importance of longer range strike as well as sea bases.  We do not see these as mutually exclusive but reinforcing capabilities.

That was the approach we highlighted in our book on Pacific strategy.

For example: “Precision strike coming by air, ground, and sea forces would be the means to strike as many aim points as possible to create escalation dominance and to win the “air-sea battle.”

If this is the approach, then more traditional approaches will be prioritized and funded, such as the Carrier Battle Group, air expeditionary strike groups, and new systems like long-range bombers that can load up on capabilities to deliver large strike packages.

But what if the air-sea battle really is about shaping a presence force with significant reachback to support a different kind of force structure and set of objectives?

Then precision strike deployed on as many platforms as possible— old and new— is not the means to the end. Rather, a different set of ends could well drive the new approach.

The key focus becomes presence forces able to operate across the spectrum of security and military operations. These forces need to be effective, agile, and scalable, with both significant interoperability within the region and reachback to surge forces operating on the fringes of the Pacific.”

Laird, Robbin; Timperlake, Edward; Weitz, Richard (2013-10-28). Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st-Century Strategy: A 21st-Century Strategy (Praeger Security International) (p. 126). ABC-CLIO. Kindle Edition.