Former Commander of the United States Central Command General Joseph Votel acknowledged that the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 helped lead to the emergence of the ISIS terrorist organization and its atrocities in the region.
He also largely blamed former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki whose management “politicized the Iraqi military” that weakened it in the ensuing fight against ISIS and allowed it to capture Mosul city in 2014.
Two years after his retirement from the US military, Votel revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that he is still involved in the Middle East, viewing it as a region of strategic importance to Washington. Saudi-American ties must also continue, he remarked, urging the US to maintain its support to its ally in the war in Yemen and in defending itself.
After your retirement from the Central Command operations in the Middle East, how do you view the region and American presence there?
First off, I think the Middle East region remains a very important area for the United States. We have a lot of national security interest there. And in just the last couple of weeks, with the incident that took place in the Suez Canal where we had a ship that was blocking the canal, we were reminded how important the waterways of the Middle East are for global commerce. And that's just one of our interests in the area.
I think the United States has long-term interest in this region. It is important to our overall security strategy and important to our economic health. I think it remains an important region to the United States. That doesn't necessarily mean that we have to have large numbers of troops there forever. But we do have interest in this area and we need to make sure that we are pursuing strategies and policies that support those interests.
How do you assess the situation in the region?
I think the situation in the Middle East is getting more and more complex. We've seen things that could be viewed as positive, for example the improved relationships between Israel and other Arab countries. This I think is a positive thing, but I think it also makes things more complicated for Iran. On the other hand, we've seen Iran be more aggressive. We’ve seen that with the attack on Saudi Aramco facilities a while back. This is another example of how complex the region has become.
So, in my view, this is a region that continues to breed complexity and will continue to grow more complex in the future. I believe planning is more complex today than it was when I was there.
- War on ISIS -
Why hasn’t the global coalition to defeat ISIS succeeded in eliminating the group?
This is a very good question and I think what we have learned over time is that violent extremist organizations like ISIS are very hard to completely destroy. We were successful in taking away the “caliphate” and in breaking them up and killing their leaders, but many fighters go to ground and many of the underlying conditions that support organizations like ISIS or al-Qaeda really remain and so those take more than just a military solution to it.
The host nations have to address these problems, the coalition members have to address these problems, diplomats have to address these problems. While we've had some military success. Military success by itself is not enough to completely address the problem of ISIS, and we will need to continue to apply pressure, whether that is military, or whether it is, diplomatic. I would say that we are making some progress in some areas. Our work with Iraq, for example, I think has been good. And we've continued to save their capabilities. On the other hand, we still have a lot of refugees and we still have ISIS fighters that remain behind and that's not good. Those are the seeds of the next group.
Who made ISIS? You once said that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki contributed in its birth when he prevented the military from confronting it in Mosul in 2014. Talk to us more about this.
There are a variety of contributing factors that give rise to organizations like ISIS. In this case, I think we can see that at the end of the war and in 2011 when the United States left Iraq. We took a lot of pressure off of the remnants of those organizations. We did not, however, stay and continue to remain partnered with the Iraqi forces, so we may have contributed to that. At the same time though there were social, economic and political issues. All of these factors gave rise to organizations like ISIS.
Host countries were also in the wrong because they had to assume responsibility as well. think it's important to recognize the responsibility for organizations like this comes from a variety of different factors.
As for Mosul in 2014, I think it happened because we stepped away from the Iraqi army. The military largely became a political tool for Maliki and he replaced very good competent military leaders with those who are more politically beholden to him than they were militarily competent.
As a result, when they came up against a very vicious and capable enemy like ISIS, they lacked the professionalism, cohesiveness and military leadership that they needed to defeat that organization early on. You saw the Iraqi army collapse at places like Mosul, and really throw the country of Iraq into a very, very serious panic because they were unable to defend their own cities, their own borders, their own territory. In this regard, Maliki bears some responsibility for that
How do you assess the ability of the Iraqi military today?
I think it today it is good. The coalition led by the US, starting in 2014 and working for a number of years, helped to rebuild the army. The Iraqis did a lot of this work themselves. We didn't try to create them in our own image. We supported them as they grew, but I think today, we see them performing at a good level, conducting a wide variety of operations on their own without a lot of our or coalition assistance. I think their progress has been very good.
General Frank McKenzie, the head of CENTCOM today, said that the threat of ISIS making a resurgence exists in regions held by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Do you agree with him?
I do agree and I have always agreed with his assessment, which is very accurate. I think it's important today to look at some of the conditions in places like northeast Syria and the displaced persons camps there, such as al-Hol. This can be a problem again if we don't address it. Al-Hol is home to some 70,000 refugees, including relatives of ISIS members. We are beginning to see today a dangerous mix of these refugee families, who have been infiltrated by ISIS fighters who are trying to take advantage of these particular people.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) conducted an operation there recently and arrested, I think, about 50 ISIS fighters, who are operating in these camps. We have to pay attention to this in the coalition and Western nations. A variety of nations have to help address the problem of remaining detained ISIS fighters and the refugee families that have been left behind because they will be radicalized. They will be exploited and they will be the seeds of the next terrorist group that we will have to deal with.
Do you think the SDF needs more support from the US?
I think the SDF deserves support from the United States and from the coalition, because it has played such an important role in helping us achieve our objectives and in helping defeat the ISIS “caliphate”. Whether that means more troops or more weapons or whatever I think that can help. This will have to be determined by General McKenzie, and the leadership in our department and in the new administration.
Do you see any change on the ground from the previous administration and this current administration?
I think it may be too early to judge. We've seen this administration sustain the current level of support, which I think is good. We will have to see what direction they go in addressing the problems of ISIS and Syria. Syria is not just a military problem. It has to be addressed through diplomatic and political efforts. That is the only way you will have a final resolution. The military can support, but it's going to take more than that to resolve these long intractable problems.
- Confronting Iran -
Iran is destabilizing the region through its militias and it controls four Arab capitals. Who is supporting it and why?
I think the Iranian leadership is behind these activities. Qassem Soleimani and the supreme leader definitely have been supporting these things and perpetrating these activities for a long period of time, so they are certainly behind it.
But I would also like to point to the recent agreement struck between Iran and China. It is a long-term 25-year agreement, worth around $400 billion. It seems that countries like China are positioning themselves where they can benefit from some of the activities that Iran is perpetrating across the region. Iran is principally responsible for this, but what we do see other states, other actors who are also trying to benefit from the instability that has been sown by Iran.
What about Russia? You only mentioned China.
Russia and Iran are partners with the Assad regime in Syria, and so they are operating together. The discussion could be had about whether Iran is benefitting from Russia or whether Russia is benefiting from Iran there. They are, however, operating in a symbiotic relationship here. They are both, therefore, benefitting from Iran’s activities.
What is the common interest between Iran, China and Russia?
I think their common interest is to minimize the influence of the United States in the Middle East. There's no doubt that Iran wants us out of this region. Russia wants us out as well so that they can exert their own influence. China has economic objectives in this region that I believe they may think are threatened by our presence, by our influence and by the relationships we have with so many countries in the region. I think a major part of their motivation is getting the US out of this region, forever.
Do you think we will witness a direct war between the US and Iran similar to what happened in the war in Iraq?
I don’t know, but I certainly hope not. I don’t think this is in anybody's interest. It's not in Iran's interests and it's certainly not in the United States’ interest in getting involved in a fighting war with Iran. Such a development would work against many of our other strategic priorities, such as competing in the Pacific and pursuing our own economic resiliency as we move forward. It would significantly impact our broader strategy. A war between the US and Iran would wreak devastation on the region. So it wouldn't be in the region's interest either. I think we have to hope that cooler heads will prevail and we will find ways to de-escalate the tension and not get to a point where we get into a hot fighting war.
Do you think Qassem Soleimani’s killing was good for the region? Was he among your targets while you were in the field?
He was not directly on my target list. At the time that I was the CENTCOM commander we were mostly focused on the anti-ISIS campaign plan in Iraq and Syria. There were Iranian backed militias that were fighting in places like Iraq against ISIS. So we were not trying to provoke Iran at that particular time. We were really focused on the mission at hand so he was not my priority at the time.
But he was targeted and killed in a US strike. In my estimation, from everything that I know that the United States took prudent action in this case, that he was planning and plotting. He was getting a position where he could perpetrate attacks against Americans and our friends and allies in the region. We had to protect ourselves. I think Qassem Soleimani got what he deserved. He was a destabilizing influence on the region. He was a destabilizing influence in Iran. There were many people in Iran who suffered under the hand of Soleimani so we shouldn’t sympathize over him. He got what he deserved. It's a very complex region and I think the United States took the action that it deemed it had to at the time.
How do you see Iran after his killing? What effect has it had?
The effect is quite great. Soleimani played an extraordinary role in Iran. He was not only a military commander but he was an intelligence leader, a quasi-diplomat. If you looked at the United States, he combined things that our CENTCOM commander does, things that our CIA director does, things that our secretary of state does all in one man. He was in many cases the face of Iran as it operated around the region and he was responsible for orchestrating that. His killing is not something that Iran can easily replace. It will take a generation or more to replace somebody like Soleimani.
So I think his killing has a very significant impact on Iran. They will not be able to replace them. I don't know that this necessarily diminishes any other threats that Iran perpetrates. In some cases it may make them even more dangerous because there is no centralized control over all of these different elements under Iranian influence.
- Supporting Saudi Arabia -
How do you perceive Saudi Arabia’s efforts in confronting attacks from Yemen?
I think Saudi Arabia has taken the responsibility of protecting itself. They have a lot of equipment that has been sold to them by the US over a number of years. The equipment has been designed to help them have a strong defense and protect their own borders, both maritime and physical land borders. It is in our interest to help them, so they can defend themselves. I think it is in our interest to make sure that the war in Yemen doesn't spread across the region.
A media report said a “tiger team” from the Pentagon was headed to Saudi Arabia to help its army in terms of training and providing it with defense equipment. What do you know about this?
I don't know much about that initiative. I think it's a good idea. It’s a good example of how we can work to help Saudi Arabia without taking this over ourselves and without trying to take on the military responsibilities of protecting the Kingdom
We have to look at it through the long relationship that we have had with Saudi Arabia, that goes all the way back to 1945 and President Franklin Roosevelt when he met with King Abdulaziz bin Saud on board the USS Quincy. No relationships are perfect, there's going to be problems, but we have to work through them. I think for Saudi Arabia to be a strong, vibrant force for good in the region, we need to help them get there.
- Pullout from Afghanistan -
Is it time to withdraw from Afghanistan?
It seems so. We must do it in as responsible a manner as we can. We've been there a long time, there's a lot of history here. There are very hard decisions before us right now, for the new administration and it's not as easy as saying “yes, we stay” or “no, we don't stay”. I think we have to think very, very carefully about this. It would be helpful if we could see if our efforts can help reduce some of the violence or get to some kind of diplomatic peace, but I think we have to think very carefully about this.
We still have concerns about terrorist organizations that emanate from this part of the world to Afghanistan. We have to think carefully about this and if we make the determination that we are not going to stay on the ground and we have to accept the fact that we may be subject to plotting, and then potentially attacks against our citizens, our interests, our friends or our own land. These are not easy yes or no questions. They are very, very complex. As Secretary Lloyd Austin said, all conflicts need to end. And so we need to pursue an approach that gets us to be as responsible as we can.
You were on the ground. What are the difficulties there and how can they be addressed?
The difficulties I saw are probably the difficulties that many people read about. The Kabul government is weak. They have challenges exerting their influence beyond the major urban areas. Beyond those areas, Taliban still holds sway. They still have challenges with effective military and other leadership out in these areas. They have challenges with corruption and they have a very resilient adversary in the Taliban, who has not given up easy and who has not played cleanly in this.
Do you think the Taliban is a threat to America? Can an agreement be struck with it?
I think they are an indirect threat to the American people and many Western countries, because they continue to refuse to break their support to organizations like al-Qaeda. It’s hard to trust an organization that won't repudiate an organization like al-Qaeda.