May 31st, 2015
01:08 PM ET

Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling and Michael O'Hanlon on ISIS' military strategy and the Shia militias

Please credit any usage to “CNN’s FAREED ZAKARIA GPS”

The following transcript is of an interview with Lt. General Mark Hertling, former Commanding general of US Army, Europe and Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow of Brookings Institution. They discuss ISIS and their military-like operations, the probability of an ISIS victory and if America should support the Iranian-backed Shia militias.

MANDATORY CREDIT for reference and usage: “CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS”

TEXT HIGHLIGHTS

Hertling on if America should support the Shia militias in their fight against ISIS: “They are going to be players on the scene, Fareed. And they're certainly neighbors of Iraq. So they are want to - they are going to want to contribute to this fight. We have got to work around their actions in one way or another without supporting them… Yes, we're going to have to work somehow with them, but not work with them, if you can understand what I'm saying.”

O’Hanlon on what America and Iraqi special forces can do to avoid an ISIS victory: “I think one big issue here is should American Special Forces be involved, not only in advising, but even in participating in some of the raids that would be used to take back a city, because there are a lot of predictable locations. And if we can work with Iraqi special forces to hit hard and fairly simultaneously ourselves at a number of these locations, I think there are some real vulnerabilities that ISIL has trying to act as a government.”

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: You've just heard my political explanation for why ISIS has won some victories in Iraq. Let's try to understand this from a military perspective. I was struck by ISIS's taking of Ramadi just two weeks ago. The terror's group's final push began with a series of huge car bombs said to be bigger than the bomb that felled the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. ISIS is also said to have dug tunnels to aid their assault and to have used a sandstorm to operate under cover.

I want to understand why this gang of terrorists seems to be operating like a real military.

To do that, I have two terrific guests. Retired U.S. Lieutenant General Mark Hertling once commanded all of Northern Iraq and worked extensively with the Kurds during the surge. Hertling served three years in Iraq in all and is a CNN military analyst. And Michael O'Hanlon is one of the best military analysts in the business. He is the co-director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings.

Mark, let me begin by asking you what did you learn from watching the fall of Ramadi or reading about it? I read about this and I thought to myself, this is being run by Saddam's former army. Was that, you know, did that occur to you?

GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It certainly did, Fareed. And a couple of things struck me as I watched it. First of all, the adaptability of the army of ISIS, if you will. The way they're doing things now is very differently than - very different than what they did a year ago. They are using formations differently. They are hiding better among the people. They're using the so-called human shields. They are using different tactics: the use of massive amounts of suicide bombs in cars; the ability to conduct intelligence against their enemies, in this case, the various factors of the Iraqi security forces; their ability to conduct reconnaissance in force to get a lot of information on an army that they're countering, which frankly is doing things the same in many manners.

They are fighting hard but they are doing things the same way.

ZAKARIA: Michael, what was - what struck you about this recent phase of ISIS military strategy?

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION SENIOR FELLOW: Hi, Fareed. Well I was struck, also, the sort of extrapolation of previous tactics of using simultaneity. So it was the 10 car bombs that were huge that also went off more or less at the same time.

And, of course, part of what you're trying to achieve with that is a military effect, but part of it is a psychological effect, and it reinforces, I think, some of your earlier political analysis - that it's a combination of playing with people's minds as well as achieving specific physical effects at bases or checkpoints. And so I think you create a climate of fear and inevitability.

ZAKARIA: One of the things that many people have argued about ISIS is that behind this Islamist facade or behind this Islamist organization is a military backbone that is colonels and generals from Saddam's former army. If that's the case, Mark, it's going to be much harder to defeat or to take back these cities, because presumably, they know these cities.

HERTLING: They do. And that's what's been fascinating about it. You know, we look at some of the maps that we see on the various media, and it looks like they have this big amoeba of lands they occupy. That's not true. They are, in fact, very focused on pinpointing their occupation and they use the tactics of infiltrating, assassinating, and then intimidating.

And the combination of that in some of the big cities and even some of the smaller towns will allow them to get a support structure where they can continue to flow their logistics, which supports their operations.

And frankly, that's something that's stymying the current Iraqi security forces.

ZAKARIA: Michael, when you look at this - these 10 car bombs that you talked about, which were really, in some cases, truck bombs, each one the size of the Oklahoma City bombing - and, of course, these were suicide bombers. These were people who gave up their lives for this advanced action.

Does it seem that in a situation like this, the most fanatical guys win - that is, the people who are willing to really go out there and die for their cause are going to win and that's ISIS and not the Iraqi Army?

O'HANLON: You know, I think that's true, Fareed. And I agree with what Mark Hertling said a minute ago. But I also think we have to underscore some vulnerabilities this organization has.

For one thing, they are trying to hold territory that they are trying to govern. That's much different than what al Qaeda in Iraq was doing during the time of the surge. So, in other words, they have to hold certain fixed locations, government facilities, other places that we can target, or I should say, the Iraqi Army can target and we try to help.

I think one big issue here is should American Special Forces be involved, not only in advising, but even in participating in some of the raids that would be used to take back a city, because there are a lot of predictable locations. And if we can work with Iraqi special forces to hit hard and fairly simultaneously ourselves at a number of these locations, I think there are some real vulnerabilities that ISIL has trying to act as a government.

ZAKARIA: Mark, let me ask you about a controversial piece here, which is the support of Shia militias. The people who are battling ISIS very ferociously are the Kurdish militias and the Shia militias. The Kurdish militias we do support. The Shia militias we've been a little bit more wary, because many of them are Iranian-backed and financed.

Should we recognize, at the end of the day, that they're the guys fighting ISIS and give them the air power that they need?

HERTLING: They are going to be players on the scene, Fareed. And they're certainly neighbors of Iraq. So they are want to - they are going to want to contribute to this fight. We have got to work around their actions in one way or another without supporting them.

Remember, these Shia militias, many of them, were the same ones that we were fighting when we were there. They're - the adviser from Iran is a guy that pledged himself to kill as many Americans as possible and also contributed to our troubles that we had for quite a few years in terms of getting a representative government within Iraq. So all of that is part of the very strong complexity of this situation.

Yes, we're going to have to work somehow with them, but not work with them, if you can understand what I'm saying.

ZAKARIA: Mark Hertling, Michael O'Hanlon, thank you so much.

O'HANLON: Thanks, Fareed.

HERTLING: Thank you, Fareed.

END INTERVIEW


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