Episode 25. Iraq: The Diplomatic And Military Fight Against ISIS With General Sean MacFarland And Ambassador Stu Jones Part I


General Sean MacFarland and Ambassador Stu Jones discuss their partnership in building Iraq’s ability to fight ISIS, negotiating the Iraqi/Kurdish relationship, the role of Iranian militias, Operation Tidal Wave II and the challenge of public messaging.

Episode Transcript:

Amb. McCarthy:            00:02                Welcome to a special two part conversation in the series, The General and the Ambassador. Our series focuses on how our senior military leaders work with our senior ambassadors to advance American national interests overseas. The program is a project of the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Una Chapman Cox Foundation. My name is Ambassador Deborah McCarthy and I am the host of the series. This two part podcast was recorded in February, 2019 at the Sanford School at Duke University with the students of the American Grand Strategy Program led by Doctor Peter Feaver. We want to thank all those at Duke who helped us organize a special event. Our guests in this podcast are General Sean MacFarland and Ambassador Stu Jones. The topic is the leadership of our military and diplomatic missions in Iraq, during the height of the fight against ISIS, 2014 to 2016. Both General MacFarland and Ambassador Jones have long experience in Iraq. General MacFarland served in Desert Storm, he returned to Iraq as commander of the First Brigade Combat Team, First Armored Division in 2006. This was the unit sent into Ramadi, and General MacFarland is credited with the Sunni Arab Awakening Movement, which was instrumental in turning the tide of the war at the time. General MacFarland returned again to Iraq in 2015 as the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. After leaving this position, General MacFarland became Deputy Commanding General and Chief of Staff for the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command. He retired from active duty in February, 2018. Ambassador Stu Jones first served in Iraq as the Governorate Coordinator in Al Anbar Province in 2004. He then became the director for Iraq at the National Security Council and following that, Deputy Chief of Mission at the American Embassy in Baghdad from 2010 to 2011. After serving as the US Ambassador to Jordan, Ambassador Jones returned to Iraq as the US Ambassador there in 2014. subsequently, he was the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East affairs at the Department of State before retiring in 2017.

Amb. McCarthy:            02:26                So I wanted to start the conversation by talking a bit about precisely their partnership, how they built the partnership and how did they convey this partnership to their teams, back to Washington, as well as to the Iraqi government. So either of you gentlemen can jump in.

Amb. Jones:                  02:42                Thank you Deborah. Thank all of you for being here. I'm very honored to be here. As the gentleman mentioned, I'm a graduate of Duke. It's very special for me to be here at the Sanford school. Terry Sanford was the president of Duke when I was a student here and someone I admired greatly, and who enriched my life and enriched many lives. So it's very special for me. I also want to give a shout out to Nick (inaudible) who is the author intellectual of this event since he suggested it several months ago. And of course, delighted to be here with you Deborah, thank you so much and kudos to you for developing this podcast and using it, I think, to really teach the importance of the civil military relationship and it's a special, special treat for me to be here with my battle buddy Sean MacFarland. We suffered many travails and enjoyed many triumphs together and he's truly a great friend and great leader. I was in Iraq first. I arrived there in October, 2014. Sean came a bit later about...

Gen. MacFarland:          03:33                August of 2015.

Amb. Jones:                  03:34                Yeah. We sat down immediately and both of us had served, as you said, in Iraq several times. We'd seen really very strong models of civil military cooperation: Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus, Jim Jeffrey and Lloyd Austin. We said that's the model for us and we're going to collaborate on everything, we're going to go to each other's meetings. There's no meeting that I ever went to that Sean wasn't invited to and having him there was a tremendous asset for me in terms of our credibility and when the senior political leaders were asking his military views, it was a very positive exchange. So we just agreed that our staff would work together, that there would never be any signal of any dissension or dissatisfaction with each other to our staffs. If we had a disagreement, we'd work it out and we certainly did. I mean, of course, and actually, we did have some times when we saw things slightly differently, but we worked through it and our staffs worked through it and that was the message to them as well.

Gen. MacFarland:          04:29                You know, I would just like to say that I wish that on the military side we had something similar to this podcast, because I don't think a lot of our general officers really understand the importance of that relationship with the chiefs of the country team. We talk about it, but understanding how it works in practice I think is something that isn't well understood, unfortunately. I was very fortunate to have Ambassador Jones to work with and we did see things pretty much eye to eye. I could not have done my job without the Ambassador, and what was unique about Iraq was, unlike Afghanistan or Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, we had a fully fledged embassy stood up. There was a Title 22 ambassador with Chief of Mission authority. We didn't have that in 2006-2007 we didn't have it in Afghanistan in 2012-2013. That relationship was all the more critical and the meetings that I was able to go to, the vast majority of them would not have been possible without the good offices of the Ambassador. In fact, partly because he had all the hard cars and until I was able to get some more helicopters introduced, green helicopters, I was flying around in the embassy helicopters.

Amb. McCarthy:            05:40                A little rivalry on assets?

Gen. MacFarland:          05:41                Not rivalry, actually. It was complimentary. I mean sometimes Stu would fly on my helicopter. Sometimes I'd fly on his. We did pay a fee to fly on Stu's helicopters.

Amb. McCarthy:            05:54                See how poor the State Department is?

Gen. MacFarland:          05:54                It was something astronomical. It's like $500 a seat for a 15 minute flight. But that's a State Department thing, that wasn't an embassy thing, and we gladly paid the fee. We had the money to spend.

Amb. McCarthy:            06:05                Well, I wanted to ask, we pulled out our troops by the end of 2011, almost all. And then when the ISIS onslaught happened in 2014, we began sending our troops back and we started the air strikes. What were our main goals in going back into Iraq and can you describe how you both worked our system as well as the Iraqi government to rebuild our military presence in the country?

Amb. Jones:                  06:27                When I arrived in October, 2014, ISIS was basically 30 kilometers from Baghdad and there was a great sense of urgency to bring the US air power to bear against those forward movements of ISIS and it was a very, very tense time for the government of Iraq and also domestically in the United States, there was a great deal of alarm about the situation. It's a very good time to be a US Ambassador when the host government is really desperate to have the US military support. We were really warmly welcomed. We had tremendous access. Sean's predecessor and I would go in to see all the senior leaders, the Prime Minister or the Minister of Defense, we mapped out the strategy, it was easily and quickly adopted on the Iraqi side. The air power that was already in effect was brought to bear in a really magnificent way. But again, I mean it was a crisis. The Iraqi military had completely folded before ISIS. I mean you had young men in Mosul who literally stripped off their uniforms and fled through the streets naked because they didn't want to be caught in an Iraqi uniform. They knew they'd be murdered by ISIS. So there was also then the challenge of rebuilding the institution of the Iraqi security forces. And then, what we saw too, because of the crisis, the senior religious figure in the country, Ayatollah Sistani had issued a fatwa that urged all Iraqis to come and support the defense of their country. So many of these irregular units were formed as what they call popular mobilization units. We used to talk about them as Shia militias, although there was a wide variety of them, some of them were certainly under the direct influence of the Iranian military. So balancing all these forces and trying to sort out how this was all going to work was challenging and difficult. The prime minister had also just been brought in and he was very new to the job. He did not have control over these militias yet. Sorting all this out was very, very challenging.

Gen. MacFarland:          08:16                So when I arrived, Ambassador Jones and my predecessor, James Terry, had stopped the bleeding. The barbarians were still at the gates, but they weren't advancing anymore. Kind of the last domino to fall was in Ramadi, where Stu and I both served in previous tours, in May of 2015 and job one for me was to get Ramadi back. I was responsible for Iraq and Syria, and in Syria we had some success working with the Kurds there in northern Syria where their backs were against the Turkish border in a place called Kobani, and air power was decisive in that location and air power had really achieved it could achieve, which was to stop the ISIS juggernaut. My charter was to then push ISIS back and start wiping out the caliphate and that would require another level of effort. We couldn't just attrit the enemy. We had to build up the Iraqi military into an offensive force to take back Ramadi, and quite frankly, Ramadi was relatively close to Baghdad and Taji and bases of support like that. Going to a place like Mosul, the enemy's capital in Iraq, was like a moonshot and we had to build up to that and create the capacity for them to sustain themselves, and to work with the Kurds. Iraq was surrounded on two sides by Kurdish forces, Mosul was, and it wouldn't be possible to take Mosul without the cooperation of the Peshmerga, and the Kurdish regional government. So once again, relying on the diplomatic offices of Ambassador Jones, working with President Barzani and his government up there was critical to set the conditions for the rest of the campaign.

Amb. Jones:                  10:00                Also in 2014 the price of oil collapsed. Of course, the economy of Iraq is completely dependent on oil revenues. The government budgets dropped by 50% because that's the only revenues that the government had, was from the oil revenue. So at the same time that we were dealing with this military crisis, we were also dealing with an economic crisis, the government unable to meet its obligations and having to slash expenditures. And this also affected the Kurds of course because the Kurds had been receiving monthly installments of payments for the oil that they were exporting. This dried up, and so now the Kurds who were going to be essential partners were also broke. Having to manage this economic challenge, bringing in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, other donors, as well as the humanitarian assistance that was needed for all of the displaced Iraqis who had had to flee ISIS. This is sort of the landscape that we were all dealing with. So there was no purely military challenge and there was no purely political challenge. Everything was completely mixed up.

Gen. MacFarland:          10:58                Well right, and we've talked about the economic and the military challenges. There were plenty of political crises during our time there that the ambassador managed. On top of all that, there was the information challenge. We'll talk about that later, but you pretty much had all that going on, and then layered on top of all of that, the week after I arrived, the Russians showed up. They showed up in Syria in a big way and they tried to show up in Baghdad too. The Iranians were everywhere as well. So the National Security Council had a great term of art for the situation, especially in northwest Syria where it's particularly problematic, and that was 'marbled' to describe the inner meshing of all these different conflicting groups and goals. I probably would have used a different, less suitable for work term, but it was pretty descriptive I thought. And clever.

Amb. McCarthy:            11:47                And as we built up the Iraqi forces' training and equipment. What roll did Department of Defense have and what role did the Department of State have?

Gen. MacFarland:          11:54                There were really two parallel efforts which we were able to converge over time. We had the long standing Office of Security Cooperation for Iraq inside the embassy, and their job was really kind of looking long-term to the Iraqi Army and Air Force. My job was a little shorter term, which was to get the Iraqi military back up on its feet and get them to push back against ISIS. That took a bit of doing, so I had a budget, the Iraqi train and equip fund, it was about a billion and a half of two year money, so about $750-800 million a year. And then we had the FMF [Foreign Military Financing] and FMS [Foreign Military Sales] cases that were working through the embassy, and we tried very hard to not duplicate efforts and to complement each other. And fortunately the OSC-I [Office of Security Cooperation- Iraq] guy that was there, I was the commander of an Army Corps, the Third Corps, and one of my division commanders had gone over to this job, and he's the commander there now, Paul LaCamera is his name, and Paul said, "Hey sir, I know I don't work for you, but I'm not stupid." He worked with me very closely.

Amb. Jones:                  12:59                Each of these programs carries their own regulations and rules, so you'd want to match up what can we do out of the embassy to ease those...

Gen. MacFarland:          13:05                Exactly.

Amb. Jones:                  13:05                But that money is more restricted.

Gen. MacFarland:          13:07                Right.

Amb. Jones:                  13:07                And then use the flexibility of Sean's programs to do the emergency stuff, the urgent stuff.

Gen. MacFarland:          13:12                When you're dealing with the Iraqi security forces, and not just the Iraqi security forces, there are a lot of different indigenous partners out there, the Hashd ash-Sha'abi popular mobilization guys, there's the Sunni tribes, and on and on, Peshmerga and so forth. I didn't have carrots and sticks. We could put you on a diet of baby carrots until you were ready to come back to big carrots, but really there wasn't a lot that we could do to slap anybody over the top of the head because we were trying to fight by with and through the indigenous forces on the ground. Advise and assist, train and equip, but we were trying to get them to do the heavy lifting. To get them to do something, it was usually a bit of a judo flip, right, where they wanted to go do something and we would just kind of deflect him slightly into a different direction, so they would land in a place where we wanted them to land rather than where they would have gone if left to their own devices and that took leveraging all the different instruments of national power to get them to do that.

Amb. Jones:                  14:10                One of the really challenging things both in terms of the US Government and the domestic audience, and managing the situation in Iraq was how should we interact or not interact with the Hashd ash-Sha'abi, the popular mobilization forces, the Iranian supported militias. We knew that these militias were in the theater. We knew that they were fighting ISIS and in some cases they were as effective or more effective than the Iraqi security forces. They wanted to benefit from our air strikes. Of course, from a domestic political standpoint, the United States did not want to be providing air cover for Iranian sponsored militias. On the other hand, we wanted to defeat ISIS. What we developed, and again, so Sean and I met with the de facto political leader of the Hashd ash-Sha'abi and worked out an agreement where we would not interact with them militarily. We would not coordinate with them. They had to coordinate militarily through the Iraqi Security Forces and then we would coordinate with the Iraqi Security Forces. So that achieved two objectives. One is, they got indirect benefit from the airstrikes, and also we ensured that we didn't drop any bombs on the Hashd ash-Sha'abi. Never once did we ever strike a Shia militia unit. And if we had, that would have blown the whole political consensus around US military participation sky high. It also forced them to have to engage with the Iraqi Security Forces, something that they really didn't want to do. They wanted to be superior to, or at least parallel to, the security forces, but if they wanted to have A: the benefit of the airstrikes, and B: not get inadvertently dropped on, then they had to coordinate with the security forces. And this was something that Sean developed and that we then delivered sort of politically and diplomatically.

Amb. McCarthy:            15:46                Do you want to talk a little bit about Ramadi, going back in after ISIS took it over and what you found was different from your previous time there?

Gen. MacFarland:          15:54                So when I was there in 2006 and 2007, as a brigade commander, Ramadi was probably the most violent part of Iraq in a very violent time in Iraq, if you can imagine that. The principal way that we were able to turn that around was through the Sunni Arab Awakening, which had its beginnings right there outside of Ramadi with some of the local sheikhs there and that spread and became the Sons of Iraq, and complimented the surge force and really allowed that whole war to turn around. Well the question was, well, can you get the band back together again and stage a second Sunni Arab Awakening? And the answer to that was no, really. Things had changed significantly. We weren't on the ground in the same kind of numbers that we were when we were able to get the Awakening the first time. But the government of Iraq was a much more powerful entity than it was back in 2006 and so really the path to bring Sunni Arabs into the fight against ISIS was through the Iraqi Security Forces. Not as a standalone force, but actually make them members of the Iraqi Security Forces, make them local police, and that was a pretty difficult message, and I don't know if we're ever really successful. I know I wasn't with my boss, the Secretary of Defense, of getting them to understand that the dynamics on the ground had changed significantly. So when I got there, the way we were structured, you had the enemy, ISIS, was like a hybrid force, almost a conventional force. If you looked at images of their defenses around Ramadi, it looked like Tobruk or El Alamein with massive mine fields and things like that around it. So you had almost a conventional army that we we're fighting. We we're fighting them with an army that had been trained to do counter insurgency, the Iraqi Security Forces. We trained them to be a COIN [Counter-Insurgency] force and we were doing it largely under counter terrorism type authorities and processes, where every single target had to develop the pattern of life, and then you'd have to send the target back to Tampa, and then up to DC to be vetted by the Intelligence Community, and then we'd get the approval. Hey, you can't fight that conventional enemy with a COIM force under CT [Counter Terrorism] authorities, I mean that's a mismatch. Well over time we were able to change that, but the first thing I had to do was to train the counter insurgency force to be a conventional force again, teach them combined arms maneuver and give them the equipment, that these seven armored bulldozers that we remember so well, get their M1 tanks working again, and give them the mine clearing devices that they needed so they weren't treating every minefield like an individual IED. And that took a little bit of time, but that was my focus was to give them the ability to fight like a conventional force again. And brigade by brigade, we were able to do that, and that force became the Mosul force.

Amb. Jones:                  18:45                All of this required tremendous convincing back in Washington, in the Pentagon, the NSC [National Security Council], and even at the State Department. So you're constantly trying to persuade folks back in Washington how this could work. One of the real heroes of this process was a guy by the name of Brett McGurk, who I think visited you guys here at Duke a couple of weeks ago. He had a tremendous ability to sort of move back and forth between Washington and Baghdad and really absorb the challenges and information in Baghdad and then would go back to Washington and explain it. That was my job too, but really having him be able to go back and do that personally, was a tremendous force multiplier and he really grasps these military concepts very quickly and fluently, and I think became a great supporter for you as well.

Gen. MacFarland:          19:28                Absolutely, both in Iraq and in Syria because we had no embassy in Damascus, for obvious reasons. He was my de facto...

Amb. McCarthy:            19:36                Mini embassy.

Gen. MacFarland:          19:36                Mini embassy for all things Syria. I was trying to fight in Iraq and Syria as one fight instead of as two separate fights. The enemy was looking at it as one fight, and trying to balance things between the two, having Bret come to Iraq and engage with us there and up to Irbil and then out to Syria, I really benefited from that as well.

Amb. McCarthy:            19:56                I want to jump back to the issue of oil revenue, you mentioned on the Iraqi government side. Sean, you also led Operation Tidal Wave. Can you tell us a little bit about that campaign?

Gen. MacFarland:          20:06                Tidal Wave II actually. The original Tidal Wave was a bombing campaign in the Second World War against the Ploiești oilfields in Romania, which is kind of where I got my inspiration for the name for this operation. A principal source of revenue for the enemy caliphate was oil revenue, mainly in Syria. We decided to go after it in a more systematic way, going after the gas oil separation plants and their big parking lots of oil trucks and things like that, rather than just plinking the oil wells, which we could've done until judgment day. So that was part of it, but also going after the large banks that the enemy had captured, especially in Mosul, where we knew that there were hundreds of millions of dollars and revenue stashed that they were using to pay their fighters and to recruit and do their media operations and lots of things. And so Tidal Wave was my way of packaging all of these resources that I needed, ISR [Intelligence Surveillance and Reconaissance], the surveillance, strike platforms, and everything else to go after enemy revenue and peel it away from the close fight, the day to day grind of keeping the enemies' heads down and striking them where they appeared. To divert those resources is a significant emotional event, as you can imagine, because the commanders in the close fight are saying, "What are you doing? You're taking away my resources." Yes, but it's going to make your fight tomorrow easier if we do that. In the military, we call that the deep fight or the shaping fight, and the amount of that that we did up around Mosul ultimately made it possible for us to move the Iraqi army, that hundred kilometers north to Mosul. That was also part of interagency counter-threat finance.

Amb. McCarthy:            21:51                This concludes part one of our conversation with General Sean MacFarland and Ambassador Stu Jones. Stay tuned for Part II where we will talk about ISIS recruitment and US actions to cut off oil revenues, the role of the Kurds and US support to the Peshmerga, US efforts to negotiate between the Iraqis and the Kurds, effective public messaging and much more. Part II will also include the excellent questions posed by audience members at Duke University.