Amb. McCarthy: 00:08 Welcome to Part II of our conversation with General Sean MacFarland and Ambassador Stu Jones, in the series The General and the Ambassador. Our focus is on their joint work in leading our missions in Iraq during the campaign against ISIS, 2014 and 2016. My name is Ambassador Deborah McCarthy and I am the host of the series. This portion of the podcast recorded at Duke university includes questions posed by members of the audience. The first speaker is Ambassador Stu Jones.
Amb. Jones: 00:40 So why were people joining ISIS? Yeah, this was one of the biggest questions that we would ask ourselves during this time. Why was ISIS this magnet? And we realized that there were all these young men, not just in the Arab world, but throughout the former Soviet Union and in Europe, who were just attracted to the romance of this fight. But they also knew they were going to get a good salary. They get a gun, you're going to get a weapon, and in many cases they would be assigned a wife. So for a young man living in poverty in Egypt, this is a very attractive package. During the fight, these guys really were being well compensated until we started taking away the resources. When we started attacking the oil resources and attacking the banks, all of a sudden the package wasn't so great anymore and we saw this in the intelligence coming back, that the morale was down and people weren't getting paid and people weren't getting enough to eat in Mosul as the forces moved in, and this was I think a crucial part of the ultimate victory. But, on the economic side it was quite a multi-agency, whole of government approach to attack the challenges of the economy and deprive ISIS of hard currency. So Iraq is a cash economy based on its oil revenues, so it was receiving $250 million in hard US currency every few months from the New York Fed. But we realized we didn't have a good idea of where that money was going. And in many cases, much of it was probably leaking to ISIS and also much of it was leaking back to Iran, on which we had imposed sanctions. So we sort of woke up to this challenge, brought a very effective team of economists, sat down with the Central Bank of Iraq, and to my surprise, frankly, the Central Bank, because of course they were dependent on the 250 million periodic shipments quickly adopted the controls that we insisted on. And that was a very positive, I think, process.
Amb. McCarthy: 02:21 Good. Because sometimes that's a tough negotiation.
Amb. Jones: 02:21 Exactly. It had a dual effect, not only of depriving these monies to ISIS, but also of depriving the monies to Iran. And I think that also enhance the effect of the sanctions that were on Iran at the time.
Gen. MacFarland: 02:34 And so while we were depriving the enemy of resources, at the same time, we were infusing our indigenous partners with additional resources. The Syrian Kurds were one example of beneficiaries, the Iraqi security forces, massive support, but the Peshmerga as well. Although we didn't really anticipate a large number of Pesh [Peshmerga] entering the city of Mosul, Mosul proper anyway, on the West Bank, they were, because of the oil revenues, starving, literally not getting enough calories in the field. So we gave them a close to half a billion dollars of additional money for the Peshmerga to kind of compensate for the loss, and it was paid out as a stipend really to pay their fighters in the field. So now, competitive advantage, the Peshmerga could afford to keep their guys in the field and ISIS couldn't anymore. And that began to shift the correlation of forces in our favor.
Amb. Jones: 03:29 You know, it was no small feat to get the permissions and authorities to spend that money that way. Then of course, there's a lot of political support for it because the Kurds have a very effective and successful lobby in Washington. So when we raised this to Congress, they were enthusiastic, but just getting the legal authorities was no small matter. And then you also had to implement a process to make sure that the money that was going to the Kurdish region was actually paid to the soldiers because the Kurds had a system where you only got paid if you're on the front lines.
Gen. MacFarland: 03:57 Right.
Amb. Jones: 03:58 So we wanted to incent that frontline presence. We were very close to the Kurds. We had a close partnership.
Amb. McCarthy: 04:03 Can you talk a little bit about the Kurds? You know, a little bit on the history, the role?
Amb. Jones: 04:08 Yea, in Iraq. You know, you have these three groups, you know, the Shia, Sunni and the Kurds. The Kurds are a distinct nationality with a distinct language. It's about 15% of the population, about 4 million people. And in Washington there's a perception that, you know, the Kurds are just one group, all united. And in fact there are several Kurdish political parties that are competing against each other fiercely for resources and access to us and others. But during this period, we were very blessed that the Kurds would have set aside their internal differences, rallied behind the leadership of President Masoud Barzani, who is a great leader and a great man, and made key strategic decisions along this process to ensure the success of our military action. But he had a problem because he wasn't able to pay his soldiers. So he was delighted with the stipend. That fostered a greater trust and confidence, which enabled us to then negotiate the cooperation between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga that allowed the Iraqi Security Forces to pass through Peshmerga lines to assault Mosul. Nobody thought that would be possible. This was brought about by a very intense conversation between Vice President Biden and Masoud Barzani, by the military plans laid out by General Macfarland and you know, just very intense diplomacy over several weeks. Sometimes it would collapse. Sometimes the Kurds would come in and just start yelling at the Iraqis and the Iraqis would just leave and say, this is hopeless. And then we'd have to bring the groups back together again. It was painstaking.
Amb. McCarthy: 05:34 And that's the catalytic thing that diplomats do, along with our military colleagues.
Gen. MacFarland: 05:38 There's built-in enmity between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga, and of course the popular mobilization forces, the Shia militias, were a problem for them too. And Mosul is predominantly Sunni city, largely Kurdish, part of the country. And it's a little tricky demographically.
Amb. McCarthy: 05:55 Marbled.
Gen. MacFarland: 05:56 Marbled, right. So we had to our way through numerous issues to make this all work. And one of the key ways we were able to make it all work was by going back to the US Government and getting them to give me the authority to allow my troops to physically accompany the Iraqi Security Forces as they moved north. Otherwise, the Peshmerga would not allow them. So you know, you talk about advise and assist, and another "A", accompany, equals another "A", assurance. It assures our partners that Iraqi Security Forces are not going to go on some sort of a raping and pillaging expedition in the Kurdish region. That was a selling point for president Barzani. It was also a selling point for Prime Minister Abadi who was a little bit nervous about sending his troops north towards Mosul, into a Sunni and Kurdish region. Having us there with them on the ground, physically side by side, assured him that, hey, if things go sideways, because there are American advisors accompanying his troops, we're not going to let things fall apart.
Amb. McCarthy: 07:02 I want to talk about the issue of public messaging and Info Ops [Information Operations]. We know that ISIS has a formidable message machine. Iran had a formidable message machine. And you talked about the Kurds and the Kurd lobby. So how did you coordinate your messaging and how did you counter disinformation?
Amb. Jones: 07:18 The most important things, in, especially in the early days, was to explain to the Iraqi people what the airstrikes were for, what the train and equip was about. There was a huge reservoir of distrust and skepticism towards the United States and the Coalition operation, which was as you point out, fed by a very potent Iranian propaganda machine. The Iranians could go into any radio station and get their message out very quickly. Although Iran wanted the United States to succeed militarily, they wanted us to defeat ISIS, but they didn't want us to have an improved relationship with the government of Iraq afterwards. It became very important for us to use our own resources to get the message out. And one of the things that we really needed was a military spokesman. So the embassy can do so much, I was going on television frequently, I had a group of journalists that I would meet with frequently. You know, we had a lot of tools. We generated a million followers on Facebook during this period.
Amb. McCarthy: 08:11 Wow.
Amb. Jones: 08:12 One of the things about living in Iraq is that there's not a lot of content on the internet and television content. So actually Facebook is the number one tool of social media for the Iraqi public. So we invested heavily in social media, getting our message out, but we really needed that military component because we had to have someone who could explain the significance of these individual strikes and the significance of the success of certain campaigns and what we were doing. And especially to push back on the propaganda that was saying that our military effort was halfhearted. We were able to recruit Steve Warren who is a very talented military spokesman, he was deputy to John Kirby, came out and did an absolutely wonderful job. But it's one media market now in the world, right? So there's the stress between what he's saying to the US media market and what we're saying to the Iraqi media market. So Steve came to Iraq perfectly fluent in what he should say to the American media market, but he and I spent hours going over what he needed to say in a way that would not be offensive or that could be convincing to the Iraqi media market. And I think we really improved our performance over time, thanks to Steve's effort and wisdom and sensibility there. This was an area where the embassy team and the military team were absolutely seamed up, I mean, Steve's office was actually in the embassy, not over in Sean's headquarters. We all made some mistakes on the media side, as people do. But overall I think we were able to push back against the Iranian propaganda machine, certainly push back on the Daesh [ISIS] machine and convince people that A., we were operating in good faith and B., we were winning.
Gen. MacFarland: 09:43 I remember Steve's first outing and he kind of stepped on a garden rake and smacked himself in the face by letting the cat out of the bag. Sorry for the mixed metaphor there. But by announcing that we had artillery in Iraq that was actually firing on the enemy. That wasn't public knowledge. It wasn't a secret, but it wasn't something we were advertising, and many people both in DC and in Iran said wait, what? And we had to quickly explain what we were doing there, were just self defense and so forth and so on. But over time we got better at it and it spared me a lot of face time in the media. I'm a little bit media shy. Steve was not. In terms of resources applied, Steve's office in the embassy, when he was posting on Facebook, you'd see an American flag behind him and it all looked good. And the entire rig that enabled him to do that was about a $10 piece of kit that he bought at the local bazaar there on the embassy compound. He taped a microphone, one of those little mics that you get for your computer, underneath his t-shirt and had one of those little GoPro cameras. And that was it. That's what the US media effort was to counter the Iranian media machine.
Amb. Jones: 10:54 We mobilized the MIS [Military Information Support] team to sit with the Iraqi security forces to develop their messaging so they actually then developed a social media campaign. It certainly crawled before it could walk and it was a gradual process, but I was delighted because I think that's how a MIS team should be used. I've always been uncomfortable with MIS teams going out and dealing with civilian communities and doing development projects that are not really integrated into the country team.
Amb. McCarthy: 11:22 And they always rub against our public affairs team and they don't always...
Amb. Jones: 11:25 Exactly. But here this was a perfect mission for them. The sky was the limit and they loved it and they did a great job.
Gen. MacFarland: 11:30 I agree.
Amb. McCarthy: 11:32 So we wanted to open it up to questions.
Audience Member: 11:38 Ambassador, earlier in this conversation, you mentioned that you immediately came together and came up with astrategy yourself in terms of how to work together. Can you unpack some of those early conversations on having to [inaudible] through the strategy, in terms of meeting local objectives, especially given the different organizations you were kind of from and then different experiences as individuals. If you can highlight any friction points, if there were any, and how you just work through that, I think that's kind of critical to some of the benefits [inaudible]?
Amb. Jones: 12:06 It wasn't hard to come up with a model for how the relationship could work, so again, we'd seen it done right with Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus, and we'd seen it done right by Jim Jeffrey and Lloyd Austin. The idea would be, okay, let's meet frequently, lets sit down. Let's talk through all the challenges. I'm going to burden you, Sean, with some of the issues I'm dealing with on the political side, so you'll have that context. I really want to come with you to your meetings with the senior military commanders so that I can understand what that dynamic is like. We had a weekly meeting with the Minister of Defense that we did jointly and we had ad hoc meetings with the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, but virtually one a week, sometimes several times a week. One of the dynamics there was, the economy had collapsed, there were all kinds of technical, economic and political issues that we needed to work with Abadi on, but Abadi, who had never been in the military before, was, turned out to be quite a good tactician and really grasped the military concepts very, very quickly. Even on, you know, arcane issues of logistics and supply lines. And so he just lit up whenever Sean came in the room and he just wanted to talk to Sean about the crisis, and I'd say, Sean, listen, I've got to get this stuff through. I've got three issues I've got to get through him. Please do not answer his questions until I get through my issues.
Gen. MacFarland: 13:20 That's true.
Amb. Jones: 13:20 And Sean obliged me generously, although sometimes it was impossible to restrain the Prime Minister.
Gen. MacFarland: 13:24 I was counseled almost before every meeting. "Hey, I've got two issues and then over to you." And I was happy to oblige and sometimes, you know, I could get a word in edge wise when we were talking to Hadi al-Amiri [Popular Mobilization Forces Leader], those tended to be harangues where he would lecture me about America and military policy.
Amb. Jones: 13:40 And so Hadi al-Amiri being basically the political leader of the Shiite militias, so the Hashd al-Shaabi. That was a relationship that, probably, previous US military commanders would not have participated in. There was some discomfort even in the Pentagon when you and I went to see him together. But those were invaluable conversations.
Gen. MacFarland: 13:56 They were.
Amb. Jones: 13:56 And you being in that room, being able to talk to him about strategy, and of course our goal was again, to make sure that, although we would not be supporting these militias, that we certainly didn't want any of them injured inadvertently by our air strikes. That was the prime directive. And then, how do we get them to be more responsive to the Iraqi Security Forces and their sovereign authority.
Gen. MacFarland: 14:17 Without causing us more problems than they're solving by getting into areas where they'll create a lot of new antibodies. Right? The evolution of the strategy occurred through a lot of these meetings with the Prime Minister, Hadi al-Amiri, and folks of that ilk, not so much with the MoD, the Minister of Defense, sadly he was a bit of a, uh, ornament, really more than an actual player. But nevertheless, it was a process over time, although it had to gel pretty quickly in order for us to kind of see the way ahead and we knew that we had to get to Mosul, we had to get Ramadi back and we knew we had to get to Mosul. And then it's just action, reaction, counteraction, figuring out what was the art of the possible, and then what levers were available to us to make that happen. We didn't draw the plan up and then go out and execute it. It sort of evolved over time.
Audience Member: 15:09 Has the implementation of perceived needs and new programs become more difficult during the present administration?
Gen. MacFarland: 15:21 I can't answer that because I'm retired now, so I don't know. I'll only say that from what I've seen, certainly in terms of budget authority and delegation of authorities to commanders for strike authorities and things like that, it's actually been easier than it was. But keep in mind, when I was in Iraq, we were trying to work our way through the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and there were a lot of competing equities that the current administration didn't have to deal with.
Speaker 4: 15:53 [inaudible] underlying task for Washington, to try to understand why the Iraqi military folded so quickly and to try to inoculate that, because I think what you were saying sir, [inaudible] it's all Iraqi and a few Americans there and I don't think that the current administration or 90% of America would agree with you. So is there a way to make Iraqis not run from defending their own nation? Is it their, do you need to address their corruption? Is it that you need to address their lack of competency in governance? [inaudible] pressuring you, say, hey look, I'm doing this again, but I don't want to put a quarter in the meter. I want it to last this time.
Amb. Jones: 16:36 That's not what the president said. What he said was, let's deal with this crisis. Also help the Iraqi Security Forces develop institutionally. The president took a crucial decision by stating that we would not support Nuri al-Maliki as Prime Minister and we withheld the strikes until that issue was resolved. So that was a major step that the President took at the very senior levels right away.
Gen. MacFarland: 17:01 We didn't take our hands completely off the back of the bicycle seat because under a [inaudible] authority, we retained a special forces presence that continued to train and equip counterterrorism service, their special forces, who became really the shock troops, the assault troops that led virtually every single attack in Iraq. Now, they weren't trained as conventional infantry, but that's how they were expected to fight. That was incredibly powerful, so even when we completely withdrew, we didn't really completely withdraw from Iraq and we kept just enough of a presence there, thank God, that we had a nucleus of capability that we were able to leverage to keep the Iraqi Security Forces in the fight. Had it not been for the CTS [Counter Terrorism Service], I wouldn't be surprised if Baghdad hadn't fallen to ISIS. I mean, they were really the difference in the fight. They were by far the most effective fighting force in Iraq or Syria on either side of the fight. I mean, they were great. To give you a sense of the burden that they carried though, out of 14 battalion commanders at the beginning of the war, all 14 were killed in action. That's leading from the front. So we can criticize the Iraqis, but let's remember that not all Iraqis deserve to be lumped into one group as ineffective fighters. There was a very effective group of Iraqi soldiers in the CTS that we tapped in. The other thing I would just say about the Obama administration is every request that I made was ultimately approved. Might've taken more time than I would have liked to get those approvals, but I was never told no. I was told, well, we'll think about this, it was a very deliberate process. I'm not in a position to say whether that was right or wrong. I was just down in the trenches doing my job. And the other thing is, it wasn't a unilateral decision for us to increase forces in Iraq. Prime Minister Abadi was walking a tight rope and we had to explain to him and then he had to build enough of a consensus with people like Hadi al-Amiri and other political leaders within his country that this wasn't going to tilt Iraq into the US orbit so far away from Iran that it would be unacceptable and the Iranians would react in a negative way and blow up the whole campaign. There was a lot of nuanced considerations and every one of these requests, once again, it was a team effort to get them all across the line.
Audience Member: 19:28 Just one questions in regards to the PMF [Popular Mobilization Forces]. Can you talk about some of the deliberation and how you kind of weighed the pros and cons of what would be the engagement with the PMF?
Amb. Jones: 19:38 That was really one of the central themes of my tour. The challenge here is, is again that these fighters were going to be on the field one way or the other, so we couldn't ignore them. We didn't want to provoke them to attack US troops. One of the fundamental understandings was that as long as we are fighting ISIS and abiding by our commitments, we were assured that there would be no retaliation or no attacks on US troops, and this is something obviously that the President himself was very deeply involved in satisfying himself that those assurances would be, that were genuine. You know, there was a lot of criticism in the US media and the US political sphere. How could we be allowing these guys to be fighting alongside the Iraqi security forces? How can they, we allow, them to be benefiting from the airstrikes? But that was just a fact of life. And remember that they were a function of A., the complete collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces, B., that Ayatollah Sistani himself had issued the fatwa that encouraged them all to come. It was the Iranians then who very shrewdly sort of got them organized and put them under their flags. But you know, a lot of these young men weren't feeling beholden to Iran. The other thing is that the Iranians were supplying them. So a lot of the weapons and ammunition that was in the country was coming from Iran. That was stuff that they wouldn't have gotten from us, but it was being used effectively against ISIS. So this was a challenge. And the way that we dealt with it was again to, as much as we could, force the Hashd al-Shaabi to engage the Iraqi Security Forces, they wouldn't have the information they needed about airstrikes and about what we were doing if they didn't subordinate themselves to some degree to the Iraqi Security Forces, so that was the solution. Now, what we're seeing though is the Iraqi public is very nervous about the Hashd al-Shaabi. They don't like these militias running around and this is Sunnis and Shia and Kurds, a sentiment that's shared to a great degree. It's much better in my view to let this sort itself out through the Iraqi consensual process, then trying to put too heavy a finger on the scale because that will provoke negative domestic reactions as well as reactions from Tehran.
Gen. MacFarland: 21:31 From my perspective, all I could really do was put pretty strict guidelines on Iraqi Security Forces, that said you cannot allow the Hashd al-Shaabi to enter Fallujah or Ramadi or Mosul proper. I understand you need them for certain things, just keep them out of these areas and I'll continue to support you in this way, as long as we don't cross these lines. By and large, they respected those guidelines and so did the Hashd al-Shaabi. Hadi al-Amiri said, "Okay, I won't put my guys inside of Mosul proper." To a certain extent, it was in their own best interest to listen to us anyway because once we laid out what we were trying to do, they could see the quid pro quo was there.
Amb. Jones: 22:11 And you know, they made their own tactical mistakes. So you'll recall that during the assault on Fallujah, and again, we had been very clear, we wanted the Hashd al-Shaabi out of Fallujah because that would provoke a crisis between Sunni and Shia. But they couldn't help themselves, and they went in and they committed a massacre. You know, Steve Warren and our Facebook page and everything else, highlighted this massacre as something that was spawned by the Iranian support. It damaged them politically, domestically.
Gen. MacFarland: 22:37 But the problem with the Hashd al-Shaabi was they didn't respond to just Hadi al-Amiri. They were a multi-headed beast and they didn't have real control over the troops in the field. I mean some were better than others. When there was a problem, they would say, well we don't really control these guys. Okay. Either they're good fighters or they're not, which is it, you can't have it both ways, but they tried to have it that way.
Audience Member: 22:59 Gentlemen, first of all thanks for your wonderful leadership during a truly tough time, both politically and militarily. But I think history will probably be kind to both of you, for what your accomplishments were during this time period. But the question is..
Amb. Jones: 23:13 When you guys write the history we want you to make sure [inaudible] ...
Audience Member: 23:18 You mentioned, you know if you look at the numbers, if you look at their, you know 60% or 70% overall casualty rate, [inaudible] having to rebuild him so they're certainly not going to be the same...
Amb. Jones: 23:28 Right.
Audience Member: 23:28 [inaudible] with the help of [inaudible]. Basically it was [inaudible] you want to call it infiltrated by the [inaudible] the next problem, best fighting force behind them. So if you, if you look at that in context and assume that we get uninvited out of Iraq, what do you think [inaudible] militarily their capacity? To you know, keep Daesh version two at bay if you accept [inaudible] numbers since [inaudible] Iraq?
Gen. MacFarland: 24:00 Not Good.
Amb. Jones: 24:03 Yeah. So I visited Iraq about six months ago and a lot of my friends from Ramadi told me that they're alarmed by the level of the ISIS presence in areas in Anbar Province. When I talked to Massoud Barzani he said, ISIS is already reigniting and south end Mosul. You know, the international community and the Iraqis have done a poor job about uh, providing relief to the people who've been displaced. You've got many people who lost their homes who are still not returned to their homes. During our time, we prioritized the humanitarian response. We focused on getting people back to their homes. We did the de-mining and we did some very basic helping communities sort of reestablish themselves, but the government of Iraq has got to be the agents for helping people get back into their homes and providing those services and it's just been too slow and people are complaining about it and people are not happy about it. On top of that, and you've got the stress of, why are we putting all these resources into the Sunni communities that destroyed themselves? We've got people in Basra who have unfit water to drink and who are not also benefiting from the oil. So there's a lot of challenges going forward.
Gen. MacFarland: 25:02 By the way, that's where most of the oil is.
Amb. Jones: 25:03 Yeah, exactly right.
Gen. MacFarland: 25:04 Right, and they're sending all that money to Baghdad
Amb. Jones: 25:07 And then of course there's the corruption issue, so there's a lot of challenges. I'm not as pessimistic as you. I think it'll evolve over time.
Gen. MacFarland: 25:12 Well, I'm not, he said if we were uninvited.
Amb. Jones: 25:14 Oh, okay, great. Okay. Got It.
Gen. MacFarland: 25:15 If we're bounced out again, then I would be pretty bearish.
Amb. Jones: 25:19 But it's remarkable that there's still consensus in Iraq to have this modest US military presence because they are afraid of ISIS and they know that the Iranians do not have the capacity to counter.
Gen. MacFarland: 25:29 [inaudible] as long as the pendulum stays somewhere in the middle, Iraq can muddle through.
Audience Member: 25:35 General you cautioned about the episodic nature of war, of solving a problem, leaving, it festers, coming back and having to solve it again. But how do you convince the American people, who the press says are tired of 17 years of war, how do you convince the American people that its still a dangerous situation that led these to be kept on, and I'm a former army First Lieutenant, [inaudible] ...
Amb. Jones: 26:05 God bless you and thanks for your service in Vietnam. It's difficult from a military professional standpoint to convince the American people what's necessary in terms of overseas commitments. That really needs to be done through civilian voices saying, "hey, this is worth doing." I mean, we'll go where we're sent, obviously. My son-in-law is in Afghanistan today. You know, my son and son-in-law both served in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it's a multigenerational war in the MacFarland family. It's a price worth paying. When I was a brigade commander in Ramadi in 2006 to 2007, and my casualty numbers were not unusual, I lost over 90 soldiers and Marines and a few Navy SEALs killed in action, hundreds wounded, in less than a year in Ramadi. In my year commanding Operation Inherent Resolve, we've had three Americans killed in action, and every American death is a tragedy, but we defeated ISIS, which was a far more virulent, effective force than al Qaeda in Iraq was. And we were able to do that through military and diplomatic engagement. I think that's a manageable cost for a country like the United States of America. You know, we can do this. One thing that I think recent history has shown us is when we don't do that, things may not get better, but they darn sure can get worse. So to give Iraq a chance to make a go of it, along with Afghanistan in there, some American presence and meaningful numbers, I think is essential. And we are the indispensable nation in any of these kind of coalitions. So we have to be there, maybe not in large numbers, but sufficient numbers to generate the international interest to help these countries through their own challenges.
Amb. McCarthy: 27:51 And this is one of the purposes of the podcast, going around the world to show where the partnership has existed, whether it's a humanitarian crisis, Iraq, Afghanistan, [inaudible] et Cetera, to show that that engagement is important. That's frankly why we started.
Unknown: 28:06 Thank you for taking the time to host this event.
Amb. McCarthy: 28:07 Thank you.