The US strategy to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State militants was based on assurances by Iraq's new prime minister, Haider Al-Abadithat, that he would create an inclusive political system which would encourage Sunnis back into the fold and convince them to help fight the self-styled Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS). It was also based on the premise that ground fighting would be conducted only by local forces, trained and advised by the international coalition, and continued targeted airstrikes.
VOA Reporter Cecily Hilleary recently spoke with Lukman Faily, Iraq's ambassador to Washington, and asked him about the progress of government reforms in the face of recent IS advances.
Hilleary: The self-styled Islamic State has taken nearly all of Anbar province, and they’re now in areas north, west and south of Baghdad. Military analysts I’ve spoken with say that IS doesn’t have to actually move troops into capital to take it—they are within firing range. How concerned are you?
Faily: As a government, we take responsibility for the whole country. We offer the safety of our own people; whether they are Sunni, Shia, Kurds or any other minorities or ethnicities, they are our primary concern. We also look after the development of the country and certainly making sure that the security of the country is in order so that we can move ahead and develop the country and the remnants of dictatorship.
We are extremely concerned about the areas that have been taken by ISIS or which they are threatening to bombard. On a daily basis, we face suicide bombings and so on. So it’s multilayered warfare. It’s unconventional warfare.
Our focus isn’t just on [ISIS] taking control of land, but on what preemptive actions the government can take to ensure the safety of the people, which is paramount.
Baghdad or other cities is not our primary focus. The primary focus is the defeat of ISIS across the whole of Iraq.
Hilleary: How, in your opinion, did such a comparatively small fighting force manage to trounce a security force the size of Iraq’s—a quarter of a million troops?
Faily: If you look at recent history--even after 2003, the Americans at their peak had only 75,000 or 150,000 [troops] and yet they had challenges in Fallujah and elsewhere. The reason is simple, that with ISIS—or Al Qaida, in those days—it was not conventional warfare. So it’s not about attacks on areas. It’s more of assassinations and executions. Anybody who works in the government, even if he’s a doctor, if they target—say, put on a suicide vest in a hospital or a school, how do you protect against that? That creates a havoc in society; it creates instability. That’s one side.
The other side of it is that we, as a government, are new to the development of a state. With 2003, the whole state collapsed. It wasn’t just the government.
The easy part of that was to redevelop a government and appoint ministers. But do people have rule of law as a culture? Do we have the apparatus of the various institutions and arms of the government, including security? Certainly we are in an undemocratic region. Which meant that democracy is a new concept and would have been challenged by players in the region and so on—Iraq itself, with the collapse of the army, the collapse of the police, and so on.
That has been the key challenge we have faced: To redevelop the country, I would say, with the full remnants of dictatorship. That has been the challenge.
Bear in mind, we are going from one end of the political spectrum of dictatorship and central government to a free market democracy, with decentralization and federalism. This is a big swing for us, within a decade. And we were occupied, as well.
Bear in mind one other thing: With all of Iraq’s issues, we recently had an election in which more than 60% participated. We are not saying we are a utopia. What we are saying is that we need to do a lot and we need support from the international community, but please consider the whole complexity of issues.
Hilleary: You have said in the past that the media focus too much on the internal politics of Iraq right now. However, Iraq’s security forces have not shown themselves to be up to the challenge of fighting ISIS. What is the problem and what steps have been taken to try and strengthen the military?
Faily: The country itself is going through a transformation. The security forces and the development of the whole army was based on a planned initiative that by 2020, the army will be ready to be able to defend its borders and have the right apparatus in place.
We are certainly going through a major transformation of our military apparatus after the Mosul situation in the first part of June this year. The new prime minister has already dismantled some of the key infrastructure and he is redeveloping that infrastructure--within the defense ministry and the security apparatus. This will take time. We are in the midst of a war with ISIS. So, as you may appreciate, no country will transform significantly during a war. We need time, we need to redevelop the apparatus based on the need and based on a more democratic, transparent system of checks and balances within the infrastructure.
The US troop departure in 2011—by any standard, US and Iraqi—was an abrupt departure, which meant that at that time, we did not have any air capability. Certainly we did not have the capability to protect our borders. The situation in Syria just erupted at that time, and so on.
The adverse impact of what’s taking place in Syria is a factor. We have this vast [shared] border in what you might call an unfriendly terrain of the desert, which means that controlling it will take a significant amount of resources.
Bear in mind that Iraqi internal politics are also a factor, meaning we could not harmonize all our ethnicities and political stakeholders to look at the situation through one prism. The differences in discourse have led to certain challenges to the integrity of the state, and ISIS is that challenge
Hilleary: The Prime Minister has said he would reach out to segments of the population who feel marginalized and bring them back into the fold and convince them to take a stand against ISIS. What efforts is he making?
Faily: First of all, there is a lot of discussion about the military apparatus in relation to the sectarian narrative. So he looked at that and he put some of the leaders in retirement and he is certainly starting internal reviews of that, to identify where the problems lie.
He has also stopped earlier tactics such as the bombardment and others, in which he felt that the safety of the people was paramount, and the collateral damage from these bombardments risk the alienation of local populations.
He has certainly had serious discussions with the tribes. He works on a daily basis with the leader of the parliament, who is a Sunni Arab himself. He has certainly appointed and will continue to appoint people based on their merits rather than based on their ethno-sectarian backgrounds.
At this moment, all the stakeholders are saying that the prime minister is taking the right steps at a good pace, but we also have what you might call diverse requirements from the prime minister. We, as a government, are working hard on multi-layers of crisis, whether it’s, for example, the economy, the price of oil. You have the regional situation. You have the war on terror, the war against ISIS. [All this] in addition to the politics, appointing senior officials and so on.
The prime minister is in what you might call a delicate position, based on a legacy he has inherited, based on a regional and a global lack of alarm about the situation in Syria.
Hilleary: There’s been talk of forming a National Guard. I know that the Obama Administration supports that idea. What’s the status of any draft legislation that may be pending—and what are the challenges?
Faily: There is currently a version going to the cabinet to be approved. We are not looking at the rebirth of the Sahwa situation under General Petreus and others. We are looking more into a proper infrastructure in which professional people are trained and report not to the tribal sheikhs but to the local provincial governments.
We are also looking for a new, permanent solution to this creation. So this is not a quick solution. It has to be more sustainable. Legislation has to be in place. Issues such as retirement, pensions, salaries and everything else have to be worked out in our budgets. And we are also looking into the checks and balances of that, to make sure that this focuses on the empowerment of local authorities and is not hijacked by any internal politics within those provinces. So it’s very important and sophisticated.
There is a political consensus for it. The prime minister is pushing for empowerment of localities. But, as you may appreciate, we are doing this during a war. So will take time. It has to be politically supported—and we are working on that. We are seeing all the right signals there. The only question we have is that we need this now, and unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of focusing just on this.
Hilleary: The US and coalition air strikes. Are they enough, in your opinion?
Faily: We appreciate what the United States is doing. We support it. We work with it, very closely. We think partnership is being developed, strong partnership, with a long view to the situation.
We see that the American campaign is focusing on a long-term strategy, but we also need a situation to address the now. The longer we leave ISIS, the more equipment they can gain on the ground. So we are in what you might call a fight against time. We think that there are more targets which the United States can attack. And we need to coordinate that.
Hilleary: I know that Iraq has said no to the presence of foreign troops on the ground, and the White House has ruled it out. But a growing number of voices say that only with additional ground troops is ISIS going to be defeated. Is there a scenario in which you could envision Iraq changing its mind?
Faily: The strategy is multi-layered: You have containment, you have defeat and you have eradication. So it depends on troops on the ground as to which level you are talking about. As for the situation right now, the Iraqis want to have that fight themselves. They are looking into a sustainable operation. We don’t need to go back to the situation where there are military camps for Americans and others, and after their departure, we go back to the situation. We need to be able to depend on ourselves. But we do need help in capability, training, command and control, intelligence sharing and so on. That’s taking place.
At this moment, we don’t see a need for combat forces. But we need support.
Hilleary: Intelligence, training, weaponry or all of the above?
Faily: All of the above and, more importantly, making sure that the political discourse across the whole region is complementary. And there is work to be done there.