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Retired Lt. Gen. Sean McFarland On The Legacy Of U.S. Military Presence In Iraq

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Iraq's prime minister says his country wants U.S. troops to leave. He told his cabinet today there's no other way to defuse tensions in the region. What's more, he says, Iraq has the forces to fight ISIS, which is the primary reason why the U.S. is in Iraq these days. For some thoughts on that, I spoke earlier with retired Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland. He commanded U.S. forces fighting ISIS in 2015 and 2016.

SEAN MACFARLAND: I think that is a wildly optimistic statement by the Prime Minister. Remember, part of the reason that ISIS got its feet under it was into the absence of U.S. forces. And the Iraqi security forces have improved. I just don't think that they're quite ready to take the fight on their own right now and hold ISIS in abeyance.

CORNISH: Can you give us some examples or consequences if the U.S. fight against ISIS is disrupted over this situation?

MACFARLAND: Well, obviously, the training advising - you know, the thing to remember is one of the most effective forces against ISIS was the counterterrorism service, the CTS. They were the shock troops. They were the forces that led virtually every operation against ISIS. Without that relationship with us, the Iraqis are taking a huge gamble as far as our ability to continue to fight a terrorist threat like ISIS.

The other example I would say is that the U.S. is able to marshal international coalition members and apply pressure to ISIS across Iraq and Syria and around the world, really. I mean, there's really no place ISIS can run and hide from the long arm of the U.S.-led coalition. Without the United States being able to provide the framework for that coalition and without its ability to operate in Iraq, the Iraqis are going to be at a huge disadvantage vis a vis any successor organization that might replace ISIS or whether ISIS itself comes back.

CORNISH: I want to ask you about the killing of the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. When you were heading anti-ISIS efforts, was there serious talk of doing something like this, taking this kind of action?

MACFARLAND: Not really at the time. We kind of had our hands full with ISIS, and we weren't really looking to pick a fight with Soleimani. And to be honest, at that time, the PMF, or the Hashd al-Shaabi, were engaged in the fight against ISIS.

CORNISH: You're talking about an Iranian-backed militia.

MACFARLAND: I am. At that point, they were serving some useful purpose, so we didn't really seriously consider anything of that nature. However, we know that the reverse was not true, that the Iranian-backed militias were constantly casting a wary eye toward us and were not really excited about the fact that we were present in Iraq in any significant numbers. And I used to call it the Soleimani moratorium that allowed us to operate in Iraq - that eventually, Soleimani would say, OK, thanks for all of your help, America and your allies; now get the hell out - which, I think, is what happened.

CORNISH: You spent a large part of your career at Iraq all the way back to the Gulf War. The U.S. has had troops there for 17 years. With the threat of U.S. troops being kicked out after all these years, has the U.S. finally essentially lost Iraq?

MACFARLAND: Well, I think that to the extent that we've lost Iraq, a lot of that occurred when we pulled out in 2010 and '11. That was what really gave Iran the opportunity to gain a great deal of influence in Iraqi government and security forces. I think a lot of that was recovered by us coming in and helping in the fight against ISIS. And I think the Abadi government and the current government were good partners with us, and I think things were on a pretty good path until Iran began ratcheting up the pressure. And then we got into this situation that we're in now. So we haven't lost Iraq, but certainly, things are not as good as they were when the wolf was growling at the door in terms of our relations with Iraq.

CORNISH: Gen. Sean MacFarland, thank you for your time.

MACFARLAND: You're very welcome.

Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: That's retired Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland. He commanded the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria from 2015 to 2016. He's now a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.