The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 came with many warnings that it would lead to a dire consequences for the whole region. A decade later, and the brutal jihadists from ISIS are dominating the north of the devastated country. Now, the US is again mulling the possibility of sending its army to Iraq once more - but would that actually help solve the issue? From where does the money come for the Islamic State? Is America obliged to save Iraq after what it's done to that nation? We ask these questions to American Colonel and former diplomat Ann Wright on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze:Colonel, the 2003 war in Iraq was a reason you left the U.S. military after many years. Do you feel the roots of what’s happening now lie back then?
Ann Wright: Well, yes. In 2003 I did resign from the Federal government. I actually had order to retire from the military; I was a U.S. diplomat, and I was one of the three diplomats who resigned in opposition to the war in Iraq. And I do feel that there are so many similarities now, 11 years later with the issue that the Obama administration is bringing forward, and they are seeming intent that they will be using military force to resolve the further issues in Iraq, and perhaps even in Syria.
SS: But what I really meant was that… I’m talking about ISIS expansion and the will of the ISIS to create a caliphate. Do you think that, what’s going on right now, has to do something with the invasion in Iraq in 2003, or those are two separate things?
AW: I think they are two separate things. Certainly, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has precipitated what we now see, 11 years later, with the growth of ISIS and other forces that initially came in to the region to battle with Assad in Syria, but are taking the opportunity with the disarray that came starting with the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. And then, the Al-Maliki government that has been so brutal towards the Sunnis in Iraq, that the ability of ISIS to move remarkably quickly, to gain territories in Syria and now in Iraq is very worrisome and dangerous.
SS: Now, president Obama has authorized deployment of additional 350 american troops to Iraq. Last month, the U.S. launched an aerial campaign against the Islamic State. Will any good come out of this?
AW: Well, the issue of the protection of the U.S. facilities in Baghdad and other cities of Iraq by U.S. military forces is one rational for the deployment of certain number of military folks. And then, the administration has already said that they will be sending in special forces to help train or re-train Iraq military to battle ISIS. And also, the use of CIA operatives up in the north, in northern Iraq and the Kurdish area of Iraq - one could argue that this does give the Iraqi military and the Kurdish Peshmerga a better opportunity to battle ISIS. One of the fears, though, is that the continuation of the U.S. providing U.S. military equipment will end up as we've seen what has happened now, when ISIS has overrun Iraqi military facilities and have taken U.S. military equipment that has been given to the Iraqi military. So, one of the great dilemmas is when you start funneling more military equipment into this type of situation, it may be turned up on you as we've seen - that equipment now being in hands of ISIS and being used to battle almost in one way the remnants of the Iraqi military.
SS: Steven Sotloff was the second journalist executed by the Islamic State. Let’s hear president Obama’s response to this:
OBAMA: And those who make a mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget, and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.
SS: Now, the U.S. president has vowed to avenge the death of U.S. journalist and called for the war plan to be drawn up. Should there be further involvement?
AW: Well, indeed, it’s horrific what ISIS is doing, not only to the international media, to U.S. reporters that are being beheaded, but in even greater measure, what ISIS is doing to Iraqis and Syrians that they have captured. The wholesale murder, massacre of large numbers of Iraqi military and people in villages who have repelled or attempted to repel the ISIS military onslaught. There’s no doubt about it, ISIS is very brutal, terrible group of people who are rampaging across that area of the world.
SS: Well, yeah, but that’s my question - does the U.S. really have any other choice but to get involved and act in the face of these kidnappings?
AW: The people that have been kidnapped - I mean, the international folks have been in the hands of ISIS for quite a few months now. The beheadings of course are horrific, and as vice-president Biden has said...something about the “gates of hell” being opened; I think the administration certainly feels the pressure that something needs to be done about it, about this group of horrific people. Now, whether it is further american military on the ground - I suspect not, because the feeling in the U.S. is that we do not want our military involved in ground operations any further in Iraq or in Syria. However, I do believe that the types of pressure that can be put on groups that do support ISIS, that have allowed ISIS to purchase military equipment, that are working with ISIS to buy on the black market oil from the oil fields that ISIS has captured - I think that’s really where ultimately the pressure points are…
SS: Which groups are you talking about? Could you be more precise?
AW: If you look at who is behind the oil, who is behind the oil from those oil fields, where it is going, through what borders is it going - some of it is going up into Turkey, so you've got to put pressure on the Turkish government to stop the flow of oil; you've got to put pressure on the Turkish government to stop allowing these large groups of international fighters that have crossed the border from Turkey for the last several years. I would say, you have to put pressure on the Saudis: the Saudis have been pouring a large amounts of money, as have the governments of Kuwait and of Qatar, into various groups of the foreign fighters.
SS: But so had the Americans, I don’t think these are the only people that are funding the foreign fighters in Syria. Americans are the ones who are funding them just as much as are the Qataris or the Saudis…
AW: Yes, I totally agree with you on that; I do not believe that they are funding ISIS, the U.S. is funding other, what they think are more moderate groups that are fighting the Assad government, but the ones I was actually talking about were those that either by turning a blind eye, or by actually funneling money and weapons into ISIS are giving it the power to gain territory and hold it.
SS: So there’s my question - the U.S. has propped up many allies that it later had to confront. The likes of Al-Qaeda, or Taliban - do you feel like it contributed to the rise of ISIS in Syria as well - involuntarily, of course - by funding the rebels?
AW: Certainly, the instability that has been caused by the U.S., starting 10, 11 years ago, from 2003, with the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and earlier than that, the U.S. going in to Afghanistan after 9/11 - all of those events have triggered a large number of people from Arab and Muslim worlds, who have to the U.S.: “we don’t like what you’re doing in those areas”, and they have been coming in to Iraq and in Afghanistan and have been trained, and equipped and then have been available to go to other parts of the world, including Libya, to act as mercenaries for whomever wants to hire them.
SS:Now, if president Obama had launched a bombing campaign in Syria in 2013, do you think that could have stopped the rise of ISIS?
AW: One could argue that yes, bombing of not only ISIS but of other radical groups in Syria could perhaps have decimated some of their fighting force. However, the thing that people are very concerned about is that that in itself is drawing more of the foreign fighters to the fight, that indeed the U.S. bombing of Muslim fighters does draw in even more of the Muslim fighters.
SS: Just to wrap the subject of ISIS in Iraq - do you feeling like that Washington has the responsibility for the future of Iraq and what becomes of it?
AW: Part of the problem is, first, the initial invasion and occupation by the Bush administration; then, you have the Al-Maliki government that was… many people say that U.S. put that government in: Al-Maliki who brought in more Shia leaders and pushed out the Sunni leaders that should have been brought in to the government that was all-inclusive of all of the groups in Iraq. One could say that the U.S. has spent billions of dollars on the training and equipping Iraqi military and it folded against the force that was not nearly as large as it actually was. I personally, as a person that resigned initially over the theory that military force was going to resolve the issue of Saddam Hussein regime, I don’t believe that further use of our military is what ultimately going to resolve the issues in that region.
SS: Afghanistan is another unresolved issue - the U.S. troops may leave for good by the end of this year, but will the weak Afghan government be left to deal with the Taliban like Iraq was left to deal with ISIS, what do you think?
AW: You’re exactly right - here we have Afghanistan after 13 years that U.S. has been involved in there, and weak government, in fact, it is still disputed on who’s going to be the next president of the country. You have many of the people who were called warlord prior to the U.S. invasion, or the groups of people that the U.S. hired to work with it to push the Taliban and Al-Qaeda out, many of them with severe human rights abuses allegations to start with… I myself am not too optimistic that here, 13 years later and hundreds of billions of dollars later and the expenditure of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives, that the future of Afghanistan is a stable secure country, where all groups will be treated honestly and fairly and that country will progress in a way that one would hope it would - I myself am not very optimistic about it.
SS: Now, ISIS is being called the “new Al-Qaeda”, but the actual Al-Qaeda has declared a new front in India. How do these groups fit together? Are we seeing expansion into new territory after ISIS took over the old “feeding grounds”?
AW: It’s kind of “targets of opportunity” it looks like that various groups are using. As ISIS fills into one area of Iraq and Syria and becomes the dominant force there, Al-Qaeda is looking for another place where it can stake its own territory. Certainly it had its inroads into Pakistan… It’s interesting here that they indeed have claimed that they are going to India.
SS: So, what are we going to see? Jihadist corporate rivalry unraveling?
AW: Indeed, “Jihadist inc.” When we really look at it, sadly, throughout the North Africa and the Middle East and then going on into South Asia, you do see the rise of various types of militant groups, to include not only Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Al-Nusra; you've got the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban. It is a growth industry. You look also to Libya, where there are many groups, each fighting for different parts of the territory of the country, to the extent that the U.S. had to close its embassy there, because none of the locations where we had embassies or consulates are safe enough, in the opinion of the State Department, that we can leave our diplomats. So, it is a tragic function in this era, that we see the growth and expansion of these jihadist groups.
SS: You've mentioned earlier on in the program that the pressure should be put on groups that are actually helping ISIS to get money from the oil sales - it’s true that ISIS is raking in billions through things like oil. Could this movement be more about money than establishing a religious state?
AW: I think it certainly is a movement about money, it’s a very well-funded organisation, but from I gather, it is a group that is intent on establishing a geographical location for it’s beliefs, the caliphate that they talk about. They intent to hold territory and indeed they have, to the extent that they control major cities, that they are generating their own income through oil and I think it is going to be a challenge for the international community to go in and push them back from these established areas that they've had some of them for almost a year now.
SS: Israeli-Palestinian conflict is something that you've also spoken a lot about, spoken strongly against the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Is there any way that international pressure can push Israel into a genuine peace process?
AW: It’s a very good question. How the international community has pressured Israel - has been ineffective, mainly because it really hasn't used the full force that it has at its disposal. The U.S. itself could do much more to pressure Israel to stop the illegal settlements of which they have just announced that they are annexing a thousand acres of Palestinian land into Israel. The pressure to stop the occupation of the West Bank and to lift the siege of Gaza - these are things that have been demands of the Palestinians for the longest time. The U.S. is the greatest pressure point of Israel, because we give Israel almost $3 bn a year in military assistance alone, plus all sorts of economic incentives. The U.S. is allowing itself to be pressured by very large and well-funded Zionist lobby that works for the protection of the State of Israel, and works primarily in the U.S. Congress to threaten the U.S. Congress people that if they don’t vote for pro-Israeli issues then they will be turned out of office; we've seen that AIPAC, the American-Israeli Public Affairs committee, the big lobby for Israel, has been very effective at threatening and scaring and then trowing out of office people that say that they are going to look honestly at what’s happening there, and may support the Palestinian cause in cases.
SS: I want to talk a little bit about Hamas. You know how the appearance of ISIS with its deliberate focus on cruelty and no compromises, does it make you feel like it’s easier to treat groups like Hamas with more respect? As a matter of fact, you know, “we don’t negotiate with the terrorists” - that attitude is almost universal, but do you feel like maybe these days there are groups of terrorists that you can talk to and that slogan actually should change?
AW: Yes, I certainly think so, and the latest of this week, the Israeli propaganda is that “ISIS is Hamas, Hamas is ISIS” - well, that’s just not true. Hamas was elected as the governing body of Gaza. I don’t agree with the rockets that Hamas and other groups in Gaza have sent into Israel, but the level of violence that is between Palestinians and Israelis is overwhelmingly from the Israeli side towards the Palestinian side - there’s no doubt about that. Over 2000 Palestinians were killed versus 64 Israelis in this latest attack, and in 2009, fourteen hundred Palestinians versus 11 Israelis… Hamas does not have 24 hour drone coverage over Israel, it does not have F-16 that are bombing Israel every single day as is happening with the Israelis in their naval attacks and ground attacks, and air attacks on Gaza. So, there’s a very distinct difference in the level and the proportion of violence in there.
SS: Thank you so much for this wonderful interview. Colonel Ann Wright, U.S. veteran and former diplomat. We were talking about what brought upon the spread of ISIS and could it be contained, and also are there terrorists that we can talk to, and are there groups that we can’t. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, we’ll see you next time.