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Col. Larry Wilkerson says if the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq does not focus on supporting Iraqi fighting forces to do the heavy lifting, we could end up with full-scale war like we did in Vietnam

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore. And welcome to another edition of the Wilkerson report. Now joining us is Larry Wilkerson.

Larry is a retired United States Army officer, former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s an adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary, where where he teaches courses on U.S. national security.

Thanks for joining us, Larry.


WORONCZUK: So, Larry, let’s frame this segment around President Obama’s decision to send 1,500 additional advisers, as well as to seek $5.6 billion from Congress to help Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds fight against ISIS.

But before we get directly into that issue, let’s take a look at an interview that President Obama did with Bob Schieffer of Face the Nation this Sunday. He began the interview by discussing what he thought the results of the military operation were thus far. Let’s take a listen.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Phase one was getting an Iraqi government that was inclusive and credible. And we now have done that. And so now what we’ve done is rather than just try to halt ISIL’s momentum, we’re now in a position to start going on some offense. The airstrikes have been very effective in degrading ISIL’s capabilities and slowing the advance that they were making. Now what we need is ground troops, Iraqi ground troops, that can start pushing them back.


WORONCZUK: So, Larry, you heard President Obama basically say that the airstrikes have been successful and the military operation has been going as planned. What’s your response?

WILKERSON: My response should be the same, initially, at least, that I used to give on the wargaming floor at the U.S. Naval War College when I’d ask one of my commanders or captains how things were going as he stared into his computer screen. And he would say, as planned. And I would say, wrong answer, commander, wrong answer, captain. Tell me if you’re accomplishing your mission. Things can be going according to your plan and your plan can be wrong. The question is: are you accomplishing your mission? Which in this case is to defeat the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq–at least that’s what are you talking about, Iraq, not Syria right now. So that would be my first question of the president, and I would admonish him that saying things are going according to plan is not saying very much.

The second thing I would do is question that things are going well, that is to say, that the mission is indeed being accomplished. But I’d hasten to add that not enough time has passed for us to judge that yet. I think from what has happened and the time that has passed I can judge that we seem to be accomplishing a mission in terms of limiting the effect of the Islamic State forces in Iraq and beginning to at least tell them, show them that they can’t just operate with impunity. And while we’re doing that basically with air power, we’re trying to do the other things that we need to do that eventually will be necessary if we’re to kick them out of Iraq or defeat them decisively. So I don’t think enough time has passed to judge whether the president’s proper response, are we accomplishing the mission, is valid or not.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And in the interview, Obama also described what the role of the 1,500 advisers would be. Let’s take a look at that.


BOB SCHIEFFER, ANCHOR, FACE THE NATION: Will these Americans be going into battle with them?

OBAMA: No. So what hasn’t changed is our troops are not engaged in combat. Essentially what we’re doing is we’re taking four training centers with coalition members that allow us to bring in Iraqi recruits, some of the Sunni tribes that are still resisting ISIL, giving them proper training, proper equipment, helping them with strategy, helping them with logistics. We will provide them close air support once they are prepared to start going on the offense against ISIL. But what we will not be doing is having our troops do the fighting.


WORONCZUK: No combat role, says President Obama; just training and assistance. Do you think this accurately describes what the role of the advisers will be?

WILKERSON: I think he’s telling us what his military subordinates have told him, and in that since I think he’s being honest and truthful about it. I will say that having been there myself on the receiving end of some of this, in Vietnam in particular, I would doubt that these now almost–well, over 3,000 U.S. troops are going to be that far away from combat all the time. There are probably going to be special operating forces there who will have things like ground lasers in their hands and other things to identify and mark targets for the Air Force, and they’ll probably be right there with the Iraqi troops whom they’re supporting. So eventually when the Iraqi troops go to the field and go to contest ISIS on the ground, there will probably be U.S. forces right there along with them doing things like helping them with close air support, which he mentioned.

This is a slippery slope, and it’s a slippery slope that I’ve slid down myself, as it were, and been around before. When we say, okay, there’s only going to be 1,500, then there’s going to be 3,000, then there’s going to be 5,000, than 6,000, then 16,000, as in Vietnam, and then we march through ’63, ’64, ’65, and we’re up to Lyndon Baines Johnson sending over 100,000 troops, and the U.S. essentially turned the war into its war in Vietnam.

I’m not saying that’s going to happen. If we’re careful, very careful about the strategy that we employ in Iraq and in Syria, if we’re very careful about how we do the standing up of the Iraqi national forces–Peshmerga, tribal units (we’re calling them tribal units now–in other words, the Sunnis who are being awakened again to push the Islamic State forces out of Iraq), and the Iraqi national forces. If we let them do the heavy lifting, if we let them do the fighting and we give them the close air support, it could be a successful campaign.

Let me hasten to add again, though, that what I’ve seen spent over the past six or seven years that we–you know, 2004 up to about 2008, when we tried to train the Iraqi forces before, spent some, I’m told, $25-$30 billion–one person even told me $59 billion–on doing that, and then they fell apart just a few years later when they were confronted with really a not-that-formidable a force–Mosul, for example, where they actually deserted their weapons systems and so forth and turned tail and ran–I don’t know how this complement of training is going to be that much different from that complement of training. I hope it’s going to be different. I hope we really train some effective units in the Iraqi national forces, but I’m a little bit leery about accepting these promises again that we’re going to train them and they’re going to be the ones doing the heavy lifting. That’s the plan, as the president said, but that might not accomplish the mission.

WORONCZUK: In regards to the U.S. troops, Obama said, well, never say never, and he also said that there’s more cooperation between members of the coalition than ever before. Let’s take a listen to that.


SCHIEFFER: Should we expect that more troops may be needed before this is over?

OBAMA: You know, as commander-in-chief, I’m never going to say never. But what the commanders who presented the plan to me say is that we may actually see fewer troops over time, because now we’re seeing coalition members starting to partner with us on the training-and-assist effort.


WORONCZUK: So in regard to this question of the cooperation between the members of the coalition, the other point about this is that what the U.S. has basically decided to do right now is exactly what Iran has been doing, that is, sending weapons and advisers to both the Kurds and Baghdad. Now, the other important news is that, of course, as you know, in the midterm elections, with the Republicans sweeping, we have Senator John McCain who’s poised to become the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Do you think that we’re likely to see a change in policy towards Iran, as well as the Islamic State?

WILKERSON: Let me back up to your first part of your question there and say that I think what we’re talking about coalition assistance and support in the training is perhaps some camps for training that feature coalition partners in them and are in their terrain, for example the Saudi’s. I understand that much of the force that’s being trained to operate in Syria, if it indeed ever makes it, is going to be trained in Saudi Arabia by the Saudis. That gives me some concern, too.

To go on to the further part of your question and answer the question with regard to committee chairmanship changes because of the midterm elections and so forth, I think probably the budget committees, the appropriations committees, and, as you pointed out, the armed services committees are going to be the important ones with regard to this effort, and I don’t see John McCain, as being in charge of the Senate Armed Services Committee, having anything but a positive effect on what the president wants to do. In fact, the president will have probably have to restrain him rather than McCain restraining the president.

That’ll be the problem. McCain will want to go further and further–depends on what his committee, of course, and the Senate as a whole wants to do, but they’ll want to go too fast, too aggressively, and perhaps even move into the introduction of ground forces–U.S. ground forces, I mean.

If this is methodical and careful and done as it should be done and the tactics that’s used in the interim period–essentially, airpower, daring ISIS forces to come out in the open, and when they do, destroying them, and then the Iraqi national forces, Peshmerga, and tribal units are persuaded to go out and do the heavy lifting, as I said, in the ground battle–we can eliminate ISIS from Iraq. It’s a fairly simple, straightforward proposition in Iraq.

Syria, as I’ve said before, will be the complex problem.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Larry Wilkerson, joining us from the college of William & Mary.

Thank you so much for joining us.

WORONCZUK: Thanks for having me, Anton.

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


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.