Underestimating ISIS: An Indictment of Decades of Failed US Policy in the Middle East

Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired United States Army soldier and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson is an adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary where he teaches courses on US national security. He also instructs a senior seminar in the Honors Department at the George Washington University entitled “National Security Decision Making.”


SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Welcome to this edition of the Larry Wilkerson report. Larry is joining us from Williamsburg, Virginia. He is the former chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary.

Thanks so much for joining us, Larry.


PERIES: Larry, President Obama, in an interview on 60 Minutes with Steven Kroft, acknowledged that the U.S. underestimated the IS and overestimated the ability of the Iraq military to fend off the militant group IS. Stephen Kroft actually challenged President Obama on that. Let’s have a look.
STEVEN KROFT, CORRESPONDENT, 60 MINUTES: How did they end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise you?

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Well, I think our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.

KROFT: You mention James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. I mean, he didn’t just say that we underestimated ISIL. He said we overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.

OBAMA: That’s true. That’s absolutely true.
PERIES: So, Larry, could that be so, that the greatest military in the world cannot properly do estimates of their threat?

WILKERSON: I think it’s another indication that the $100 billion plus that we spend on 17 different separate intelligence agencies in the United States is money not well spent. I don’t think we’ve done a real good job at strategic level intelligence in a long time, and even operational level intelligence has suffered majorly.

The idea that we didn’t know that the Iraqi military was inadequate, inadequate to almost any task other than eating, sleeping, and drinking, is probably as much a product of General David Petraeus and others in Iraq, who spent billions of dollars over the course of a decade-plus training this Iraqi military and ensuring all of us that it was going to be competent and able at a minimum to defend the borders of its own state.

The argument my party, the Republican Party, is advancing, that three years have elapsed since we left, and that in that three years they fell apart, is ludicrous. They never were very good, and they probably never will be very good, and they aren’t very good now. And to say that we overestimated the Iraqi army’s ability is to say that we fooled ourselves for a decade-plus and spent a lot of taxpayer money, and actually spent a lot of blood, too, in trying to ensure that, and we certainly did not.

PERIES: Is there any evidence that they actually knew the strength of the ISIS, that this is actually a way of easing us back into a war?

WILKERSON: Oh, I don’t think they knew anything about the Islamic State, ISIL, ISIS, whatever we’re calling it today, the term of art that they’re using, the intelligence community is using. I think it’s a fair assessment to say the intelligence community didn’t realize that the Islamic State forces in Syria, hardened by two, three years of civil war, couldn’t come out, cross the border into Iraq, and with a great deal of Saudi money and a great deal of Sunni help, the very Sunnis that David Petraeus awakened in Iraq to turn against al-Qaeda and defeat it in Iraq and to help him stabilize Iraq, that those forces, once joining the Islamic State forces, wouldn’t present a fairly formidable force. I mean, that’s a complex assessment for the U.S. intelligence community to make, and I really don’t think they’re capable of those kinds of assessments today.

PERIES: And then the point you were making about the Republican Party—let’s have a look at what Boehner had to say just recently.
JOHN BOEHNER, SPEAKER FOR THE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: At some point, somebody’s boots have to be on the ground. That’s the whole point.


BOEHNER: Listen, the president doesn’t want to do that. If I were the president, I probably wouldn’t have talked about what I wouldn’t do. And maybe we can get enough of these forces trained to get them on the battlefield. But somebody’s boots have to be there.

INTERVIEWER: And if no one else will step up, then you would recommend putting American boots on the ground?

BOEHNER: We have no choice. These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don’t destroy them first, we’re going to pay the price.
PERIES: So, Larry, this is Boehner, who on Good Morning America just recently stated that they are prepared to support boots on the ground. This is consistent with Republican Party policy. What do you think of that?

WILKERSON: I think it’s nonsense. I think John Boehner ought to get his M16 and get his little butt right on over there to Syria, and maybe if he’s got any family, he ought to send them to, ’cause what he’s talking about is sending the all-recruited military force back into the maelstrom of Iraq and Syria.

I think there are two possibilities, both of them very dangerous, with regard to that. You send major American ground forces back over there and you are, one, apt to solidify all those forces who write now are disparate and separated and organized into a unified Arab whole, no sectarian split at all, against those forces until they’ve rid the region of those forces. The second dangerous development is that we will in fact make it into a Shia-Sunni sectarian war. And it will be bloody indeed, and we’ll be right in the middle of it. So I don’t see any positive to sending American forces back over there, unless, of course, unless, of course, Mr. Boehner and all the rest of the people in my party, like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who are warmongers par-excellence, want to get their butts over there, too, their families’ butts over there, and bring back conscription in the United States, and draft half a million to a million young men and women, and send them over there in a serious effort to stabilize the region, and of course stay there for the next hundred years in order to maintain and sustain that stability. So Mr. Boehner speaks of that which he knows not, just like Lindsey Graham and John McCain and all the other warmongers in my political party.

PERIES: Larry, President Obama also stated that Shia-Sunni conflict is the greatest issue in the Middle East right now. Let’s have a look at what he had to say.
OBAMA: But what we also have to do is we have to come up with political solutions in Iraq and in Syria in particular, but in the Middle East generally, that arrives at an accommodation between Sunni and Shia populations that right now are the biggest cause of conflict not just in the Middle East but in the world.
PERIES: What do you think that statement?

WILKERSON: Well, I think you’re correct. I think this didn’t exist, not in any real fashion, before we invaded Iraq and sort of cemented the two sides and caused it to start. I think that was a disaster, invading Iraq in 2003, and we’re seeing the results of that disaster right now.

But I don’t think—that said, I don’t think that adding more American troops to it is the answer to the problem. The answer to the problem is a political answer, but it’s a political answer that’s very complex and would take a long time to work its way out. It involves Ankara, it involves the Turks, of course, it involves Tehran and the Iranians, it involves Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, it involves Lebanon, it involves all the region—and I don’t preclude Israel from being in there too—and taking on all the problems that are causing this Islamic State force to be supported by increasing numbers of Muslims, continue to be able to recruit, and recruit even better than before, and continuing to be able to prosecute its agenda in the region. You don’t stop that with bombs. You don’t stop that with aircraft. You don’t stop that with troops on the ground, for that matter, unless you’re willing, as I said, to mobilize the nation and really go to war. The way you stop that is with political solutions to problems that are causing these people to do what they’re doing, and more importantly, causing Muslims all around the world to support them.

Until you’ve done that—and George W. Bush said it back in my day in the George W. Bush administration; Colin Powell said it; others of note said it—you’ve got to drain the swamp that supports them. You’ve got to take away the reasons that the majority of these people flock to guns and want to kill people. That’s what you’ve got to do. It’s not that they’re all paranoids and they’re all misogynist or masochist or some kind of form of life we haven’t seen before; it’s reasons that they’re out there on the battlefield. There are reasons that they’re carrying weapons and reasons that they’re killing people.

And those reasons, by and large, are reasons that can be dealt with if you’re smart enough and you do complexity well enough to deal with it. It takes a lot of leaders. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of effort. It’s going to take some money, for example, to take care of the millions of refugees that we’ve now created. I’m told the refugee situation is the worst since World War II. We’ve got Jordan being destabilized, Lebanon being destabilized. We’ve got Iraq and the north with a lot of the refugees. I’m even told that some of the Syrian refugees have hit the western coast of Australia. So this is a tremendous humanitarian problem, and I for one don’t see us taking care of that very rapidly, or with much money either.

Still, there are a lot of components to this problem, and I don’t see any of them being settled by dropping bombs on people.

PERIES: Let’s pick up on that political solution. To be fair to President Obama, he actually mentioned the political solution as well. But that would mean that he has to engage Syria and Iran in the discussion. Is that likely to happen? And if they do enter more discussions about a political solution, who might actually head that kind of negotiation up in the current government?

WILKERSON: Well, I think Turkey is absolutely essential to a solution. Turkey’s got to stop doing some of the things that it is doing, playing both sides against the middle, and start doing things that would bring a long-term solution.

But I think you’re right. I think Tehran, I think Riyadh, and I think Baghdad, and I think other capitals, Damascus, are integral to this. And I think that we probably should re-examine what we’re looking at with regard to Bashar al-Assad. I mean, I know Susan Rice and Samantha Power probably told President Obama that, hey, Hosni Mubarak went; Assad’s going to go, too. But they didn’t do their homework. Syria is not Egypt, and Egypt is not Syria, and Hosni Mubarak is not Bashar al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad’s not about to go. Bashar al-Assad has major support inside Syria. And I don’t care what kind of tyrant he is; he’s holding on and he’s going to hold on. Unless we’re prepared to do what I said, mount a major invasion of the Middle East, we’re not going to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. No matter how much Ankara wants to, no matter how much Tehran wants him to stay, we are not going to be the determinant, nor are they. The Syrians and Bashar al-Assad are going to be, and that means he’s going to stay. So why are we opposing him in the way we’re opposing him?

I like to think that in secret we’re talking to Bashar al-Assad, or at least his people, and I like to think that in secret we’re talking to Tehran about common interests and settling those common interests or meeting those common interests. I hope that’s going on. I don’t know if it can go on publicly, because we have such a fractured political situation in this country now, with my party leading the way to the fractured ditch, that we can’t seem to do anything unified, anything together. But we should be talking to the Syrian government, and we should be talking to the Iranian government, and we should be using those talks to bring some solution to this very complex but difficult and disturbing situation.

PERIES: Larry, when President Obama made his ISIS speech two weeks ago, he never mentioned the Khorasan Group, which is supposed to be a strengthened al-Qaeda group. Some media is now reporting that this group is perhaps bigger than the ISIS group. Yet the group Intercept formed by First Look has challenged this theory, saying that this is another way to escort us into more war. What do you know about the Khorasan Group and their potential threat?

WILKERSON: I assume you mean a bigger threat to the United States. I don’t see how they could possibly be a bigger threat to Bashar al-Assad or to Syria or to Iraq or anybody like that. It’s a small group spun off from, I’m told, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda, and its purpose was to take advantage of the situation in Syria, much the way they tried to take advantage of the situation in Somalia, and form a group that could find some sanctuary, if you will, in order to train and plan for attacks on the United States. In that sense, if that is true—and I have no reason or hard intelligence in front of me to say it’s true—if it is true, though, that’s probably a more dangerous threat to the United States—not the region or to Syria or Bashar al-Assad, but to the United States—because they could do something similar to what al-Qaeda did on 9/11. Hopefully, we’ve learned enough from that and we’re alert enough to where we could thwart it or stop it. I’m not reassured by that prospect, however. So if all those imponderables are fact or this group really is doing what I’m told it’s doing, then yes, they’re probably a bigger threat to the United States in terms of doing something directly that would impact adversely our interests.

PERIES: And yet they’re supposed to be only a group that is about 100 people strong. Do you think they’re capable of carrying out something in the United States?

WILKERSON: Well, we’d have to assume that they had access to the same kind of assets, planning, operational assets, capabilities, and so forth that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was then the number-two man in al-Qaeda, had prior to 9/11. That doesn’t take a whole lot. I mean, if they’re planning on something like 9/11, that doesn’t take a whole lot. But I have not seen anything hard about this group, and I’m a little reluctant to start pronouncing on them, because I haven’t heard anyone in the administration doing anything but using them to justify the military action we’re presently taking it Syria. So I don’t know if they’re a real hard threat or not. I simply don’t know.

PERIES: Alright, Larry, that’s a good point to end on. Thank you so much for joining us.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.