As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle Islamic militants near the Mosul Dam in Iraq’s north, the fight is taking place with American help.
Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks to retired U.S. Navy Admiral William Fallon about U.S. military options in Iraq. Fallon was head of United States Central Command (CENTCOM) during the Iraq War.
Interview Highlights: William Fallon
His assessment of the current situation in Iraq
“I think it’s probably good to try to get a mental picture of Iraq. When we talk about taking large swaths of the country, the reality is that in the western and northern parts of Iraq where ISIS has managed to get a significant foothold, most of the country is barren desert. There are very few people, and vast open areas with little population — the population tends to be in small towns and villages. So they’ve taken a lot of these villages and they’re given credit for running a big chunk of the country — I don’t think that’s quite accurate. However, they have pushed the Iraqi forces back in the Tigris River valley, from Mosul down towards Baghdad, and that’s been very unnerving and destabilizing.
“So now what’s going on is that with U.S. airstrikes helping, the Iraqi government — particularly the Kurdish people, the Peshmerga, they have their own militia up there that they’ve had for years — they’re actually beginning to push back ISIS and have reclaimed several towns and villages that were taken by the militant extremists in the last month. So the situation on the ground is changing more favorably to the Iraqi government and their Kurdish allies right now.”
On the main factor that will decide the outcome
“The key thing here is what the government in Baghdad is going to do, because that’s fundamentally what’s really important here. And I say that because the people of the country, I believe — at least the Sunnis, who represent up to maybe 30 percent of the population, and the Kurds in the north, so together they make up about half the population of the country — have had little confidence and faith in the Maliki government. And that’s been the real story behind the scenes here, I think, in why ISIS has made these gains. So now with Maliki agreeing to step down, the new PM-designate, I guess, Haider Al-Abadi, standing by to step up, depending on what he does, I think his actions towards the Kurds and Sunnis will be the biggest factor in what really happens on the ground.”
On U.S. options in Iraq
“It’s pretty complex and very interesting. We have some number of troops back in the country now. I haven’t totaled them up — I think it’s probably in the range of maybe 2,000 or less total people — and they’re doing a number of things, I believe. They’re helping to guide the airstrikes, which would be certainly much less effective without people on the ground to guide them to their targets. I think we have people that are doing some advisory work for the Iraqi and Kurdish military people and others that are making assessments of what the situation is.”
On whether U.S. involvement will increase
“I would doubt that there’s going to be a whole lot of significant increase. I think the situation right now is actually what I had envisioned back in 2007, that we might really, in my view, what we really wanted to have on the ground was a small number of troops — maybe a couple thousand — that remained after the major withdrawal, after the majority of the combat forces were out. And these troops were not to do fighting, not to be chasing bad guys, but to be there to be eyes and ears on the ground, advising the Iraqi military, giving them confidence that we were with them and giving them the technical assistance to be effective. That didn’t happen.”
- William Fallon, retired United States Navy four-star admiral. He is a veteran of several wars, including Vietnam. He also served as head of CENTCOM, U.S. Central Command during the Iraq War.