Welcome to Defense One Radio, our new weekly podcast about the news, strategy, tech, and business trends defining the future of national security. It’s all the stuff we cover at Defense One, and we hope you’ll subscribe either on Google Play, iTunes or Overcast, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
In our first episode, recorded on Wednesday, April 25, 2018, we discuss:
- The historic first scheduled for Friday when the leaders of North and South Korea meet near the DMZ;
- President Trump nominated a familiar name as new ambassador to South Korea;
- Pentagon leaders are ducking behind closed doors to talk money with lawmakers on Capitol Hill;
- Also in Washington this week: the leaders of Germany and France are meeting Trump;
- Then later, from Baghdad, we have an interview with the deputy commander of the war on ISIS and the ops room in Iraq.
Roundtable participants include:
- Kevin Baron, executive editor for Defense One;
- Caroline Houck, correspondent;
- Patrick Tucker, technology editor;
- And Ben Watson, news editor.
Special thanks to U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Robert “G-Man” Sofge (a transcript of that interview is below). And thanks for listening!
Kevin Baron: Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Robert Sofge, thank you for joining us on Defense One Radio. So look, I was out there in January and we had a nice brief of the lay of the land in Iraq and Syria at the time. And not too much has changed in the sense that the shorthand was the war was almost over, but there was still some work to be done. And the question I think that’s in people’s minds back home here is what exactly is left to be done? I think the latest numbers that we see is that the U.S. and the coalition has taken back about 95 percent of that territory, give or take a percentage, you tell us. So where are we with that last five percent?
Sofge: Well first, it’s a pleasure to talk to you again. I think we last spoke in might have been November. October or November. Well a lot has happened since then. So first, ISIS doesn’t control any land in Iraq. I’ll stick to Iraq, specifically, for this. But ISIS doesn’t control any land here.
There’s some space that’s not completely governed at the moment, you know, out in the far reaches of Anbar. I mean you know the space — some of the places in the extreme east, or west of [unintelligible] perhaps, there’s not as much visibility into some of those places.
The Iraqi security forces — have come out of really a campaign mode, an offensive campaign, one by one, ensuring the military defeat of ISIS on the battlefield; and have transitioned now to sustained, wide area security operations that are keeping ISIS — the few remnants of ISIS that exist in small pockets throughout the country — they’re gone. The large forces are gone. And now it’s just a few forces remain. And we’ve got them, we’re picking them apart piece by piece, day in and day out.
You might recall from the news, just a few days ago for the first time in this battle, Iraqis struck across the border at an ISIS headquarters that was in Syria that was helping coordinate the infiltration of ISIS members back into Iraq. So they’re taking their border security very, very seriously. And I think that just indicates the will and determination and skill of the Iraqi security forces to see this thing through in the defeat of ISIS in its truest sense and the coalition is here with them every step of the way.
Baron: Explain what’s the difference in that kind of fighting now versus six months ago? How intense, how often?
Sofge: Well the enemy is more elusive now. It, you know, fades into the fabric of society when you’re searching for it, and then it comes out. There are networks that exist out in the space. And using intelligence-driven operations, we’re able to look in, see what’s going on, target the terrorists and go after them. It’s not so much a campaign mode, as it is an intelligence-driven wide-area security operation in all of the, in all of the places where the Iraqi security force was successful. So in Mosul. Out in Kirkuk, in the Hawija pocket. Across the Jazeera desert. Of course here in Baghdad, out through Ramadi, out into the far reaches of the Anbar desert, and the Anbar province. In fact, the Iraqi security force today is conducting operations in places that no one’s operated in in a long time. You know, 200, 250 kms kind of strikes and intelligence-driven operations to get after insurgents are being very effective in complex operations the likes of which was unimaginable a year ago.
Baron: Do you mean that as a good thing or a bad thing — that they’re in areas they didn’t have to go before, or that they’re now capable of reaching those areas?
Sofge: In a very good way. That they weren’t capable of reaching before, they are capable of reaching now. One year ago, the worst days in Mosul were still in front of us right now. And in fact, even last time we spoke, Mosul was behind us, but we still had the Hawija pocket in front of us, as well as the operations in the Euphrates River up to al-Qaim and Abu Kamal, so a lot has transpired with the Iraqi force being able to drive the enemy from the field, you know from the battlefield, and force him into this ragtag mode where he’s mostly hiding. And when he does show himself, using really a high-quality intelligence-driven mindset, the Iraqi security forces are able to go after him.
Baron: So talk about how the Americans are partnering with the Iraqis, explain it to the most lay person that you can think of when you’re trying to explain to them what the United States is doing there, what the United States troops are doing there. Are Americans going door to door at night still in Iraq?
Sofge: Absolutely not. That is no. The Iraqis are on the ground doing the fighting. We help out with intelligence. We help out with a couple other things. We certainly help out in professionalizing certain aspects of the force that were in disarray on our arrival three years ago. And we’re making great progress there. But I think where we’re making perhaps the most impressive progress today is the development and the training regimen. A genuine coalition, international effort to get the Iraqis trained up from the basics to some fairly sophisticated warfighting skills and high-level maneuvers is really a sight to see. And you know impressive formations of well-trained, well-equipped Iraqi troops taking the field, and it’s having an effect on the enemy. It is not allowing the enemy to have any space to reemerge
Baron: That’s one of the things we heard in January again when we heard from generals of the regular army, the fed pol [Iraqi federal police], and the counterterrorism service, one of the ideas they talked about was folding in the PMF [or Popular Mobilization Forces, often overtly aligned with Iran], when you talk about the training program going forward, are Americans training PMF right now?
Sofge: The U.S. at the moment is not training the PMF. But the right way to talk about this is no one gets trained by the coalition that’s not properly vetted, that hasn’t been put through a rigorous process — that this, in fact, is a unit that rates being trained, that deserves to be trained by the coalition where we spend money and effort to take this collection of people and turn them into an effective fighting force. So there’s a lot of work that goes into the front of that. We haven’t really taken that on with the PMF just yet. But the rest of the Iraqi security force, I think, we’re very close to there. And again, I think we’re kind of waiting to see what develops from the government of Iraq. Again, this is their call on what to do with the PMF.
Baron: Explain to us where we are with the relationship with Iraq at this moment where they’re facing their elections. How does that affect your mission as the commander there? I know it’s a political question, but for your planning purposes.
Sofge: The Iraqi security force, first of all they know how to do elections. They’ve had elections here before in the not-too-distant past. And the security apparatus is fully energized to provide all those things that are required to conduct an election. So the government of Iraq’s ready for their elections. And it’s up to Iraq.
Now certainly the bad guys have designs on distracting the good people of Iraq from going to the poll — all the things you might imagine are certainly out there in the bad guys’ mind. And I think you’ll probably see that out in the information space where they’re trying to dissuade voters.
Baron: Keep it up in the north then and let’s talk about the Kurds and the relationship in the months after their referendum was seen to get pretty tense for a while has somewhat died down. Do things look more stable? Is everybody in the country just waiting for May to happen?
Sofge: Certainly the elections everyone’s waiting to see those. I think things are pretty stable. And we in fact, I was in Kirkuk yesterday. And I just got back this morning. I can report that things are pretty stable along the Kurdish coordination line and, you know, where those forces are today. To say that there is no tension would be to misrepresent it. But there is tension. But it is, it seems well in hand.
We, the coalition, are encouraged by the work that’s going on there you know as where you find Iraqi security force positions and the Kurdish positions, yeah we support a one-Iraq policy. We support the government of Iraq. We have tremendous respect for the Kurds. And we’re trying to bring that stuff together peacefully.
Baron: One of the issues I ask lots of American commanders who are involved in the coalition is about this idea of the legacy of by-with-through. So you’ve gone into these countries, you’ve helped train local forces, professionalize them, equip them, arm them, protect them. Now that the fight is getting near its end in different places, you’ve got you know a couple different factions wondering, you know, how long will the Americans have their backs, frankly. And we know about up in Syria with the SDF, there’s a lot different complications there with Turkey, with air forces, with having to deal with a divided country in Syria. Iraq is different. It’s still Kurds, but a different set of Kurds. Are they expressing that same worry to you? Do you hear that? This idea of, hey, are the Americans gonna stick with us this time a little longer, or are they gonna cut and run, and we did all the fighting, and off they go, and we have to just take whatever Baghdad gives us?
Sofge: Well I sure hope it’s not one — you know I would argue with somebody that would say it’s cut and run. You know there’s a reliable strategic partnership developing in the wake of the campaign. So we had the campaign to defeat ISIS, and that was successful. We now have these wide-area stability operations throughout all of the operational commands in Iraq. Election security is paramount. Border security is absolutely required in these ongoing operations in each of the commands to keep ISIS on its heels and unable to — its networks completely broken in intelligence-driven operations.
These are the things of today.
The things of tomorrow is this transition to the professional Iraqi force, and the strategic relationship that it has in the region and the world. So I don’t think there’s any cut and run to it. The nature of the relationship will mature through time; but it will certainly not disintegrate. And I’m sure we’re here for the long haul with the Iraqis who fought so bravely against and enemy who they don’t see as an enemy of Iraq — an enemy that they see as an enemy of the world. And that they played a predominant role. You know, and I think your listeners know, the Iraqis bled deeply in Mosul and sacrificed many of her sons in the fight here. They remember, and we remember. And I think that points to a productive future ahead.
Baron: They say that themselves. That they weren’t just fighting the enemy in their country, but they were fighting an enemy against the world that just happened to be in their country. I ask you about the by-with-through, you know, concern because that’s kind of going to be the way forward. We talk about the future here, you know, when you talk about what comes after ISIS, it’s either ISIS moving to other countries across the MENA [Middle East and North Africa], into Africa, or other variants of Islamic extremism is going to be, and we should expect to see a lot more — gonna be a different level — but a lot more of Americans training local forces to do the fighting that they can for themselves. And I wonder if you have a sense of are those other forces, are other folks around the world watching your example to see if it’s a reliable way forward, if it’s an affordable way forward, if it’s the right way forward for this seemingly maybe never-ending is too bleak, but just continual war against terrorist groups wherever they may be?
Sofge: I think that the future does look something like this. This ISIS threat, it knows no borders. It knows no boundaries. It is a terrible, evil organization. So there’s nothing that they won’t do to try to stay alive. I think people understand this — you can look around the world in the Philippines, the trans-Sahel, I think you’ve already mentioned some issues there. I mean, there are places that inevitably a coalition of some form will end up to fight this terrorist effort.
I think it’s a model — you can’t fight yesterday’s battle, you gotta fight tomorrow’s — but I think a form of this certainly creates a coalition of like-minded people going after their mutual interests in a very effective and professional way.
Baron: So are we gonna see Gen. Sofge as the director of the CJOC in someplace like Niger one day? Or Tunisia, or Libya, or Somalia?
Sofge: I don’t know, Mrs. Sofge might have something to say about that. But I would, you know, I’m really really fortunate here in this billet that I’m in in this war. As we take this energy and transition it into this stabilization effort, you know where folks aren’t drawn to the dark side because they have the basic needs, almost a Maslow view of the world, you know start at the bottom and work your way up — you know, a secure environment where they have stability and ultimately opportunity and prosperity — I think is exactly the path the Iraqis are on. And I think that kind of model, however you get there, will work in all places that under this evil, terrorist ideal begins to show itself is always in a place where those things are available. So as long as they do that, and this idea of stability and, God-willing prosperity, is in the future, I think we’re in a pretty good place.
Baron: You sound hopeful. Can Iraq fade out of conflict?
Sofge: I think so. I tell ya, I think there’s a whole lot of them that are tired of fighting. And they’re ready to get along. There’s challenges. I mean all the traditional challenges are here. You know, the Sunni, the Shia, the Kurd challenge. All of the different things. Very difficult borders, all of it . I don’t think it will be fantastic, very loud, spectacular work, it will be you know kind of a blue collar, workaday, inch by inch kind of work that will get after this last couple of percent between us and complete victory.
Baron: Brig. Gen. Robert Sofge joining us from Baghdad on Defense One Radio. General, thank you for your time. Good luck to you out there.
Sofge: Alright, sir. Thank you very much. And thanks for your time in all you do to bring this story back home.