There was a lot of ground to cover, so we kept rolling after the broadcast interview ended. In this Web extra, they talk about Obama’s “kicking and screaming” decision to bomb the region, how this engagement compares to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the role the Islamic State’s barberic beheading videos had on the president’s decision and more.
BILL MOYERS: Jonathan, you were as I said one of the few reporters who got it right in 2003 in the run-up to the Iraqi invasion. Do you see any similarities today?
JONATHAN LANDAY: No, except for the involvement of the United States military. This president, as opposed to George W. Bush, basically had to be dragged kicking and screaming into intervening in Iraq and now Syria. He campaigned on a promise to get America out of Afghanistan and out of Iraq.
And the US intelligence community had been tracking the threat by the Islamic state for several years and warning the administration that this was a grave threat, this was a growing threat to the region, not just to Iraq, not just to Syria but to the region. And yet this president resisted and resisted and resisted doing anything beyond trying to get the former Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki to try and respond in a forceful way and failing to do so because Maliki simply was not going to listen to the Americans anymore.
And eventually the Americans even knew three days before the Islamic State's offensive across the border from Syria into Mosul in northern Iraq and then down into sort of to the doorstep of Baghdad. Three days before they launched it, the Americans knew this was going to happen. Tried to get Maliki again to respond and he didn't.
BILL MOYERS: Where were you in 2003?
MATTHEW HOH: I was actually in the Pentagon in 2003--
BILL MOYERS: And what--
MATTHEW HOH: --working directly for the secretary of the Navy.
BILL MOYERS: And do you see any similarity between now and then?
MATTHEW HOH: Yes, in a sense that for decades now we've had a policy in the Middle East where we play one sect against another. I have friends who served 20, 30 years in the military, and they will all say, I have spent half my career in the Middle East. And what's come of it? I see us having a policy that again for decades has been a military first policy that has either rewarded despotic authoritarian regimes with arms sales or facilitating the purchase of their oil or the regimes we do not agree with, facilitating sectarian unrest sponsoring rebels, sponsoring groups that have then morphed into a Frankenstein like the Islamic State.
And so certainly I see in Iraq now, one, the cause of the conflict or our invasion of 2003, our subsequent occupation. I would say in Iraq we have the world's largest embassy. But yet as Jonathan was saying, we did nothing to stop what was coming. My view is a little more harsh in terms of putting the blame on the government in Baghdad and their repression of the Sunnis. If you have a government that is repressing one of its minority sects, stop selling them weapons. Stop facilitating the purchase of oil, don't turn a blind eye. What happened in Iraq is in the summer you had the Iraqi army collapse and then the Sunnis fill that void just as the Kurds filled the void in the north as well. And so this is certainly something that we should’ve seen coming and certainly the parallels to previous experiences there as well then to our policy is what has put much of this in place.
JONATHAN LANDAY: The sale of weapons to the Maliki government was something the administration resisted for quite a while.
BILL MOYERS: The Obama administration?
JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely. They were asking, there was this incident and a lot of people didn't pay attention to it. I believe it was back in March of 2013. There were a whole bunch of Syrian soldiers who ran across the border from Syria, into Iraq, seeking refuge and sanctuary from an attack by the Islamic State.
The Iraqis brought these guys, put them on busses the following day and took them, were taking them back to Syria to another border crossing when they were attacked inside Iraq by the Islamic State, killed more than 40 Syrians. That incident, following that incident, Maliki's office asked the United States, please we need air strikes, we need weapons. As far as we could tell that was one of the first times they asked for it. And they were not forthcoming. They, Iraqis, we sold the Iraqis, concluded contracts for the sale, I think, of F-16s and helicopter gun-ships, I think the F-16s in 2011. They still have not been delivered.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think was the decisive tipping point that turned Barack Obama around and prompted him to order the bombing this week?
JONATHAN LANDAY: I think this assault first of all on Mosul and the collapse of the Iraqi army and an army that we had poured billions of dollars into in weapons and training that just collapsed overnight. Four divisions just collapsed and their officers took off allowing the Islamic State to sweep down literally to the doorstep of Baghdad.
What that did was essentially end up trisecting Iraq into a northern part where the Kurds were able to hold onto their piece, although they were under attack by the Islamic State, a middle part, a “Sunnistan,” if you will, where there's no resources, where you have this minority who join, a lot of whom joined the Islamic State or supported, allied themselves, creating this potential space where the Islamic State could plot and plan attacks elsewhere and push out from. And then in the Baghdad south you have this area dominated by Iraqi Shiite majority. So the United States looked at this and said, we need to be able to keep Iraq together because if this place falls apart, we've got an even bigger crisis in the Middle East. And so you saw--
BILL MOYERS: Another vacuum like Afghanistan--
JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely, absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: --in the ’94, '96 when the Taliban moved in?
JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Russians left, the United States was not there--
JONATHAN LANDAY: That's right. And you already had that situation in northern Syria let's not forget. There's this gigantic ungoverned space where you had--
BILL MOYERS: Ungoverned space?
JONATHAN LANDAY: Ungoverned space except you had Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the official Al Qaeda syndicate in Syria, and the Islamic State, which once upon a time was part of Al Qaeda, controlling these pieces of territory already in Syria. Then you had the potential collapse of Iraq as a state that we've known since the end of World War I.
And then, and so that's when you started seeing the air strikes. But what I think really turned him into this, you know, brought us this phase where he is now backing this huge international, or leading this huge international coalition was the switch in American public opinion. You had American public opinion which was dead set against any kind of intervention in Syria or Iraq and turned because of the videos of the beheading of two American journalists.
BILL MOYERS: But it was only when two American journalists were beheaded that the public woke up, right?
MATTHEW HOH: Absolutely. Last year in 2013 almost 10,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in bombings. This year over 12,000 have been killed--
BILL MOYERS: Suicide bombings--
MATTHEW HOH: Suicide bombing, car bombings, gunfights, bombs put in marketplaces, but 10,000 in 2013. So I think the important thing for people to understand about this conflict and, of course, the Syrian conflict, is that this didn't just begin this summer. This is something that's been going on for a long time.
The government in Baghdad is very corrupt. And to show how corrupt the government in Baghdad is, and this is a Shia-dominated government, but at least two provinces in southern Iraq that are Shia, including Basra, have also made noises about secession. So this is not anything that we should be surprised how the state of affairs in Iraq.
We should not have been surprised that the Sunnis are not allying themselves with the Islamic State. This has been coming for years now. The question to me is what do you do? How do you how do you rectify this? And how do you stop and halt this cycle of violence? Because this year it'll be, you know, if the numbers keep up, it'll be 20,000 civilian dead in Iraq. Next year it'll be 30,000. We have to remember that in Syria over the last three years you had 200,000 dead. How do you stop the cycle of violence?
BILL MOYERS: Why do so many people ignore the fact that air power didn't win in Vietnam and it didn't win in Afghanistan where you were in the foreign service. It didn't prevail in Iraq recently. You don't think air strikes are going to resolve this crisis, do you?
JONATHAN LANDAY: Not air strikes alone. I've got to go back to something though you said earlier. And you brought up the period in Afghanistan beginning in 1994 with the emergence of the Taliban who then went on to conquer Afghanistan and create essentially what was, I mean, they governed it, but it was this space in which Al Qaeda was able to come, get sanctuary and plot the 2001 attacks on the United States.
I think that there were a lot of, there were people within the military, within U.S. intelligence that were looking at northern Syria and the fact that you had exactly the same kind of situation take place there with the defeat of, in a lot of these rural areas abutting Iraq, of the Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad and the conquest of these areas by Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, by the Islamic State, by other Islamist groups. And I think they looked at that and drew a parallel between what could happen there and what happened in Afghanistan in the 1990s and said, we cannot allow that to take place.
Now, originally, you know, the idea was we're going to help Iraq do this, we're going to reconstitute the Iraqi army, good luck with that, and you know arm the Kurds and get them to be our ground forces. And there is a model for that. It is Afghanistan 2001 where yes, it was U.S. air power and some special forces on the ground. But the United States actually had ground troops there. They weren't Americans, they were the Northern Alliance.
And they swept out of the north, backed by American air power, and drove the Taliban out of the country. Subsequently we see there were enormous policy missteps and mess-ups that failed to crush the Taliban. I don't know if it could ever happen. But that's a model I think they're looking at.
BILL MOYERS: But Matthew resigned from the foreign service because he said the war the American war in Afghanistan was only making the situation worse.
MATTHEW HOH: I still hold that conviction. I, you know, you look at the state of Afghanistan after we've surged 150,000 foreign troops into Afghanistan. You have a Taliban that is stronger, they launch more and more attacks every year, they control a large part of the terrain. You have a political process in Afghanistan that's completely broken. You have this unity government that has come out of an election that was so fraudulent that no numbers can be released from it. The only thing that has, the only thing that has done well in Afghanistan has been the drug trade.
Every year there's record poppy and opium exports out of Afghanistan. And so what has that achieved? And on top of that, Afghan civilians have paid the cost. And for me I look at this and I say you have these schisms in this country. We are supporting one side against the other. By doing so in 2009, I felt our policy was military victory first. I actually had experiences in Afghanistan in my post where we had the insurgency come to us, want to negotiate, want to talk and we were instructed not to speak with them, that we were going to--
BILL MOYERS: By your superiors?
MATTHEW HOH: --win militarily, yes, that was our policy.
BILL MOYERS: Who told you what?
MATTHEW HOH: We were going to, this is not, we are not in the business of reconciliation. And you'd see this then echoed through statements by Secretary Clinton or General Petraeus or others in the Obama administration that we are going to drive the insurgents, we are going to drive the Taliban to the negotiations table. And of course that didn't happen.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think the president, when these air strikes fail to solve the situation, will send troops?
MATTHEW HOH: The, I think there'll be a lot of pressure. I think you're seeing members of Congress already make noise about having ground troops. You're seeing think tanks in Washington, DC put out numbers at 25,000 ground troops would be appropriate. And so I feel and I fear that there's going to be a lot of pressure put on the president to send troops back into it. I think that would be a horrible mistake. You, if, in my opinion, if you want to stop this conflict, in Syria, I think we may have missed that window. For years in Syria, we refused any meaningful negotiations. We, our goal in Syria was Assad's removal. So in any of these peace talks in Syria, we always limited the options Assad had.
We refused to allow the Iranians to participate, which is Assad's main ally. So we always stacked the deck in these negotiations so that it was never going to be an outcome that-- where you would get some negotiated settlement where each side would give up something and get something in return. In Iraq, I still think there's time. And Iraq, but I think you have to hold the gun to Baghdad's head, not the Sunni's heads. For as long as it--
BILL MOYERS: That didn't work with Maliki.
JONATHAN LANDAY: Right. And I have to say--
BILL MOYERS: He's gone now because it didn't work.
JONATHAN LANDAY: And I have to say, I don't think it was just the Americans that stacked the deck in the negotiations. There was no way Assad was giving up, the Assad family's going to give up 40 years of power. No way. And let's not forget, I mean, do you really negotiate with a guy who's allegedly used chemical weapons against his own people? I mean, some of the atrocities that have taken place, not just at the hands of the Islamic State, but at the hands of these of Assad's forces, are just unbelievable. So I don't think it's just the Americans that were preventing, you know, the, I don't think these negotiations were going to work one way or the other.
I think, you know, after 40 years, and let's not forget, this isn't the first time that the Sunnis in Syria have fought the Assad family. It's not. You know, remember what Bashar's father did in 1982, in Hama where between 20,000 and 40,000 people killed in the space of several weeks. I mean, these are grievances that have built up over decades and pressures that have built up over decades. In Iraq, you know, I agree, I don't know how they're going to, you know, the I don't even know if it's possible to put it back together in Iraq. The Kurds, for the time being, have given up their demands for independence.
And I remember meeting with a very senior Kurdish official in Washington, was there to basically tell the White House, yeah, we'll participate in a post-Maliki government, but only to negotiate the terms of our divorce. We are going to hold a referendum and we're outta here. That's gone away. And I can see the, you know, the behind-the-scenes negotiations, if you want us to stage air strikes to prevent the Islamic State from overrunning your capital Erbil, you better give up this referendum. And they have for the time being.
MATTHEW HOH: But we have to start pulling back out of these affairs. We have to start trying to become a more neutral arbiter.
BILL MOYERS: How do you do that though without creating the vacuum that you say emerged in Afghanistan, and caused so much grief?
JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely. And, you know, and I just have to say also, I think Afghanistan's still a work in progress too. You know, I've been going there since 1986. The first time I went there was with the mujahideen. I crossed the border during the Soviet occupation. And then I went legally in 1987, the first time I was allowed in. And I have to say, the contrast between the Afghanistan that I saw then, and the Afghanistan I see now, with all the attendant problems that Matt has talked about, there is an unbelievable difference.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think it?
MATTHEW HOH: Certainly in certain parts of the country, absolutely. I mean, so how do, you know, in the north, in the west of the country, in, certainly of the urban areas in Afghanistan, absolutely. But when you go to the south and the east where the fighting is, and it's hard. It's horrible. I mean--
JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely.
MATTHEW HOH: --I mean, so how do you answer grievances, how do you get to a point where these groups aren't at each other's throat, where there isn't a fighting over resources where there isn't a fight over population centers--
JONATHAN LANDAY: But I also have to say that there are, you know, I've gone back and I I've looked at places where we've intervened militarily. There aren't a lot of successes out there. There's Grenada, there's Panama, there's Kosovo, and there's the Balkans, writ large. And you know, yes, there are real problems in Bosnia because of this political system that the United States cooked up to try and put that place back together again. But it did stop the war. And, you now, have Croatia is part of the EU, Slovenia is part of the EU, Bosnia is looking to get into the EU and looking to get into NATO. Serbia is looking is on the track for the EU and looking to get into NATO. Kosovo, the same thing. Macedonia, the same thing. So you got to say to yourself, well, is it possible? Yeah, maybe.
BILL MOYERS: How does the president do that? Very quickly, both of you.
JONATHAN LANDAY: Well, I think we see where he's trying to go, which is this idea of American air strikes in conjunction with the creation of some moderate Syrian force that will fight ISIS, and then perhaps after that, go fight Assad. Come, and you put that together with this effort to try to put together a more representative government in Baghdad. You know, all these financial measures to try and stop the flow of money, stop the flow of foreign fighters, but again, you know, go back to my original point, how do you deal how do you stop all of this without dealing with the, addressing the underlying problems of that region, that I don't see the local leaders trying to deal with, the lack of jobs, the fighting the corruption, the lack of representative government, the lack of accountability. You know, lack of educational opportunities, healthcare? Unless somehow that is tackled, we could find ourselves continually trapped in this cycle.
MATTHEW HOH: How do you break the cycle? I mean, I hate to say it, I mean, as Jonathan was saying, like, how do you negotiate with either sides? And now it's so far gone, and the violence is so revenge oriented and sect against sect, even among the moderate Syrian forces, their hatred of the Shia and the Alawite people is clear in their messaging and what they say. And in Iraq, my view is, hold the gun to the government of Baghdad. Iraq is basically filled now to its borders within the country, by the various ethnic groups. The Sunnis have their area, the Shia have their area, the Kurds have their area. Hold the gun to Baghdad's head economically, because Baghdad will not reform as long as we're, as long as we're their air force.
Why would they? What incent do they have to meet any Sunni grievances? And at the same time, the Sunnis won't divorce themselves or split from the Islamic State when they see no other alternative. And that's what's so horrific about the situation in Iraq, is that the people talk about the Sunnis, they're going to wake up to the fact that the Islamic State is a bad thing. I'm pretty sure they're aware of that already. But and so the scary thing is, in spite of that, they have aligned themselves with the Islamic State, because the Islamic State's barbarity, their grotesqueness is a better option for the Sunnis right now than anything else they see. So how do you change that? And to do that, you have to have serious reform in Baghdad. You have to answer the Sunnis' grievances, the Shia need to make concessions.
I think the Kurds in the north have to make concessions. Remember that when this happened this summer in Iraq, the Kurds enlarged their territory by 40 percent. They took control of most of the northern oil fields. So now the Sunnis in a different, in addition to the mass arrests, the mass killings from the Iraqi army, the Shia army that they've been dealing with, now they're looking at economic existential danger from the fact that they no longer have these resources up there.
The Kurds control all the oil. So again, what do you give the Sunnis to make them break from the Islamic State and how do you beat down this organization that's doing so well propaganda-wise? You know, Haaretz, the Israel daily, reports that 6,000 foreign fighters have joined the Islamic State since the United States began bombing. So how do we defeat that propaganda, how do we take away that recruitment potential, how do we stop validating their narrative that they're defending the Islamic people, and particularly, the Sunnis, against the crusaders and against the apostate Shia and Kurds?
BILL MOYERS: You're the one who said to us earlier this week, this is the nightmare of Groundhog Day. Exactly what does that mean?
JONATHAN LANDAY: Well, I mean, it's the cycle that we keep getting trapped in. And we keep repeating a lot of the same mistakes. You know, I look at what 12 years, I think it has been in Afghanistan, and sort of the campaign that we launched into Pakistan's tribal area to degrade and destroy Al Qaeda. We certainly have degraded them. We certainly have not destroyed them. Zawahiri, the head of Al Qaeda Central, as it's referred to, just announced the creation of an India wing of Al Qaeda. So but, and so yeah, I know, you know, it is, it's the nightmare of Groundhog Day, because we keep going finding ourselves trapped in this endless cycle. But perhaps that's the curse of being the country that we are. The country we have been since World War I where, you know, we, as much as President Obama wishes we weren't the world's policemen, perhaps we are. And there's no escaping that curse.
BILL MOYERS: This has been a wonderful conversation, Jonathan Landay and Matthew Hoh, thank you very much for being with me.
MATTHEW HOH: Thank you.
JONATHAN LANDAY: Thank you.
Producer: Gina Kim. Segment Producer: Rob Booth. Editor: Scott Greenhaw & Alison Amron. Stills: AP Images.