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Obama's ISIS Plan May Only Amount To 'Grass Cutting'


Tomorrow members of Congress will begin holding hearings on President Obama's strategy to, as he has said, degrade and destroy the Islamic State or ISIS. We're going to be hearing a range of views on the program about that objective and its chances of success. Today we'll hear from retired Army Colonel Derek Harvey. He was special adviser on intelligence and policy for several American generals in Iraq including David Petraeus and Ray Odierno. And in his view, the president's objective will be very difficult to reach.

DEREK HARVEY: We've been fighting in places like Yemen, Somalia Afghanistan and Iraq for years. And even when we had 160,000 soldiers on the ground and all the other assets, it was extremely difficult to eliminate the threats. And in fact, we never destroyed them. We marginalized them. We degraded them. But we never destroyed them.

BLOCK: You mentioned Yemen and Somalia. Those are two countries that the president did raise as examples of how this strategy can work.

HARVEY: Well, that's strange that he would point to a policy in countries like Somalia and Yemen where all we've done is cut the grass. But the threat has remained. It's significant. And in point of fact, the threat from Yemen is significant today. And they have their partners in Syria looking to recruit Western passport holders so they can surreptitiously penetrate the defense systems that we have for our airliners. It's an interesting thing. Grass cutting doesn't achieve the objective. It just contains it.

BLOCK: Well, given those concerns that you have, what would you suggest would be a more effective strategy?

HARVEY: Well, to begin with, I think, you know, an air campaign does work. And an air campaign that goes into Syria and Iraq integrated with ground forces is an important component. And relying on local ground forces that are nonexistent right now either in Syria or in Iraq is a major problem for the president's policy.

So I think we need to consider about eight to 10,000 U.S. capabilities in Iraq - not so much boots on the ground in the sense of a combat brigade, but special operations forces - a joint combined task force that allows you to do the things you need to do from advising to intelligence and most importantly, to be able to reach out to Sunni-Arab communities and rebuild a awakening-like effort because the awakening effort where we recruited and developed tribal militias was key in 2007 and 2008. And it's going to take that type of community resistance against ISIS to win the day, in my view.

BLOCK: You're talking about numbers that would represent a huge escalation in what this White House has indicated it's willing to embark on in these countries.

HARVEY: That's true. But the president has said that we're at war and that the goal is the destruction of the enemy. If the goal is the destruction of the enemy, you're going to need to do things that the president does not want to do. And that means putting a sizable presence on the ground. I understand he's got a worldview where he does not want to go back into Iraq. But it's a major disconnect between the strategic aims and what's necessary to actually achieve the objective on the ground.

BLOCK: Let me ask you about a strain of argument that goes that the risk posed by the Islamic State has been greatly exaggerated. I'm thinking about an opinion piece that ran in the Washington Post over the weekend by a scholar, Ramzy Mardini, who says we are giving the Islamic State too much credit. He says they have very weak fundamentals. They've gone about as far as they can go.

HARVEY: Well, in some ways they have 'cause they ran up against densely-populated areas of Shia. So they've gone about as far as they can freely go. But they've carved out a large swath of territory that holds about 8 million people. And they're acquiring resources.

They're a very effective organization with good leaders and they have the capabilities and the intent to strike in Europe and the United States. What we don't know is the timing - how, where and when they might want to do that.

BLOCK: I've been talking with retired Colonel Derek Harvey. He's director of the Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict at the University of South Florida. Colonel Harvey, thank you.

HARVEY: You're welcome. It's a pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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