Mohsen Abdelmoumen: We recently interviewed Dr. Al-Chlaihawi, the Iraqi Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the European Union. He told us that even though Daesh suffered a military defeat, there is still an ideological battle to be waged against the ISIS terrorist group. What is your opinion on this?
Dr. Michael Knights: It’s right that there is a battle to convince some Iraqis, particularly young Iraqis from northern and western Iraq, that Daesh’s ideology is wrong. But in my view the more important struggle is the need to strengthen the state’s armed forces and to ensure that they are representative of the people, especially in Sunni areas. Daesh succeeded in 2012-2014 because the state security forces failed: they failed to protect the Sahwa, they failed to protect the Sunnis and they failed to protect the borders. This failure of state power was what made Daesh possible, not ideology. Daesh were stronger than the Iraqi state on the ground in northern and western Iraq, and that is what must never happen again.
In your opinion, what is the impact of Daesh’s military defeat on the other terrorist groups?
I don’t know, but it I wonder what lesson they will take from Daesh’s takeover of a third of Iraq with just a few thousand men. Will it encourage other uprisings, or will it convince groups that trying to hold terrain is an easy way to suffer high casualties and be defeated?
Your must-reading book and very rich in documentation « Cradle of Conflict: Iraq And the Birth of Modern U.S. Military Power » makes an assessment based on documents and interviews with American military and political decision makers. What are the major lessons to learn from the historical events that you have described in this book?
The book describes the US military campaigns in Iraq from 1991-2005, a period when the US dropped bombs on Iraq every year (indeed, since 1991 the US has been fighting in Iraq for 25 of 27 years). Much has happened since I wrote the book in 2005 but one key lesson from the book is that conflicts rarely end in the Middle East, they just become more or less intense. You need to be ready to compete at varying levels, using various military and non-military tools, and there is no packing up and going home with “mission accomplished.” Every time America leaves, it has to come back. My solution to that is: don’t leave. Support our allies in Iraq with the right level of engagement that is sustainable over the long run. Another lesson is that politicians need to be very clear why they are going into a military operation, and they need to spend a lot of effort explaining that to soldiers, sailors and airmen. A final lesson is that every military operation by the US will either leave the US’ rivals more or less confident – everyone is watching and waiting, so US operations must build a solid track record of success, or the US will face more challenges in the future. A lot of people want to take down the king, and America remains king for now.
In your book « Troubled Waters: Future U.S. Security Assistance in the Persian Gulf », you talk about the US military presence in the Gulf. What are the main strategic axes of the US military presence in the region?
In Troubled Waters I introduced the idea – which many people in Washington could not believe in 2005 – that the Gulf states could produce some good quality military forces. Now, twelve years later, other people realize this is the case, with the UAE standing out as the most successful Gulf military. So the UAE has risen up to join Saudi Arabia as a critical partner. UAE and Qatari intervention in Libya shocked many observers, as did the Saudi-UAE liberation of Aden and much of Yemen since 2015. GCC states are now undertaking complex operations and sustaining them for literally years on end. This suggests that the US-GCC military alliance is no longer just about America protecting the Gulf: it is about the Gulf helping America in places like Yemen, the Horn of Africa, North Africa, and perhaps Syria in the future.
In your publication « The Long Haul, Rebooting US Security Cooperation in Iraq », you talk about US-Iraq security cooperation. In your opinion, did US military cooperation strengthen the Iraqi armed forces? What is the impact of this cooperation on the fight against Daesh?
The US and its powerful coalition partners – France, the UK, Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Scandinavian countries to name but a few – provided decisive support that allowed Iraq and the Syrian Kurds to liberate every Daesh-held city in about 3 years. I was in Iraq when the battles of Tikrit, Ramadi, and Mosul were underway. Until the US-led coalition provided support, practically no progress was made in recapturing large towns and cities. After coalition air power, intelligence and training were provided, the victories began to come. Iraqi soldiers did the fighting and most of the dying – particularly the US-trained Counter-Terrorism Service – and they deserve full credit for that. They are the heroes. But they could not have done it without the US and its allies. I hope no-one forgets that in the future.
You provided an analysis for the Washington Institute of which you are a Lafer Fellow and that talks about the role of US negotiator between the Iraqi government and the Kurds: “The U.S. Must Fulfill Role of Negotiator Between Baghdad, Kurds”. Do you think that American mediation is the only solution to solve the Kurdish problem in Iraq?
No, the only solution is that Baghdad and the Kurds come to a fair and lasting division of rights and responsibilities, hopefully based on the Iraqi constitution. The US and other allies may be able to push both sides in the right direction and give their leaders the courage to stand up to their own hardliners. But Iraqis must do the heavy lifting, otherwise any progress is temporary and an illusion. Strong federalism and a united Iraq seems to offer a solution for now. One day I hope Kurds achieve their dream of self-determination, but now does not seem to be the moment.
In your opinion, in losing the territory, is ISIS restructuring itself in order to give birth to another type of organization similar to that of Al Qaeda?
They are going back to the future, meaning that Daesh is just flipping back to being an insurgency. They found this transition very easy. In places like Diyala, where Daesh lost all towns over 30 months ago, Daesh is now running a stronger insurgency that it was in 2013. So there is no ISIS 2.0 – we are still on ISIS 1.0! Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is alive. Daesh is in all the places it was location in 2013. There’s nothing new, just back to the day before Mosul fell in 2014.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Michael Knights?
Dr. Michael Knights is a Lafer fellow at The Washington Institute, specializing in the military and security affairs of Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and the Gulf Arab States.
Dr. Knights has traveled extensively in Iraq and the Gulf States, published widely on security issues for major media outlets such as Jane’s IHS, and regularly briefs U.S. government policymakers and U.S. military officers on regional security affairs. Dr. Knights worked as the head of analysis and assessments for a range of security and oil companies, directing information collection teams in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. He has worked extensively with local military and security agencies in Iraq, the Gulf States, and Yemen.
Dr. Knights has undertaken extensive research on lessons learned from U.S. military operations in the Gulf during and since 1990. He earned his doctorate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and has worked as a defense journalist for the Gulf States Newsletter and Jane’s Intelligence Review.
Published in Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.240218.htm