Asha Castleberry in Kuwait.
Asha Castleberry in Kuwait.

Iraqi Unity & the Fight Against ISIL with U.S. Army Veteran Asha Castleberry

Jul 16, 2015

"The most important thing right now is that the Iraqis have to defeat ISIL, and in order to do that, they have to achieve national unity," says Castleberry, who recently returned from the Middle East. She also discusses the roles of Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf Cooperation Council in this important and complex mission.

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders podcast. My name is Alex Woodson. Carnegie New Leaders is a membership program for young professionals who are working in a range of fields and wish to engage in a dialogue on ethics and international affairs. Through a series of formal and informal gatherings, CNL members interact with business professionals, policymakers, social innovators, and scholars who are changing the way we approach global ethics in the 21st century.

Today, our guest is Asha Castleberry. Asha is a former Carnegie New Leader. She is a U.S. Army veteran and an adjunct fellow for American Security Project.

Asha, thank you for coming today.


ALEX WOODSON: Asha recently completed a two and a half year deployment in the Middle East in Iraq and Kuwait. She was part of the mission against ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Daesh] and closely worked with the Iraqi Security Forces [ISF] and the Ministry of Defence in Baghdad. Asha came in today to talk about some of the issues involved in the mission against ISIL.

Asha, why don't you just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you were doing in Iraq for the past few years.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: First and foremost, Alex, thank you so much for this opportunity. I really appreciate you allowing me to speak at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Just to make it clear, I have been in the Middle East for quite some time. For the first year, I worked as an engagement officer closely with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for some time learning to do engagements and exercises. Then during my time in the Middle East, the counter-ISIL mission picked up, which was in the beginning of June [2014]. My unit became in charge of the counter-ISIL mission. At that time, my position transitioned to an engagement officer, where we worked very closely with the Iraqis making sure that we provided assistance and advice and engaging with them as much as possible as far as assessing them and bringing them up to be proficient in their readiness because at that time we had inherited a situation where the Iraqis were combat-ineffective.

We pretty much spent a lot of time restoring or repairing the Iraqi Security Forces, making sure they were up to speed, while countering the threat which swept right through the country during the Ramadan period.

ALEX WOODSON: We talked a little bit before this podcast about the involvement of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the GCC, and also the involvement of Egypt and Jordan with the GCC. You have some pretty interesting insights about that, and that's something that I think, with all the different players in the fight against ISIL and the war in Iraq and the war in Syria, I feel like in America, we kind of lose track of the individual countries that are leading this effort. Last week, there was a terrible bombing in Kuwait City of a Shiite mosque. Dozens of people were killed. That's really shed a light on the Gulf Corporation Council, as Kuwait is part of that.

I was hoping if you could break down for us the different players involved and how Jordan and Egypt fit in, because it's very important for the fight against ISIL, but not something that we probably hear enough about in the American media.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes, Alex. One point I want to definitely underscore is the fact that instability or stability in Egypt and Jordan is very, very important to the GCC states. For instance, prior to the mission countering ISIL or the Yemen mission—when the situation happened where we cut off humanitarian aid in Egypt due to the overthrow of President Morsi, the GCC states as well as Jordan view that as instability. They supported what the Egyptian government wanted to do or what the people of Egypt wanted to do, but they wanted to make sure at the end that Egypt was stabilized. That's very, very important to the GCC states.

As the counter-ISIL mission picked up—one thing I will say in the beginning is that the region itself was trying to figure out its role as far as how to contribute to the fight against the threat. At one point, definitely, the GCC states provided humanitarian aid and weapons delivery to the Sunni tribal groups in Iraq. Much of it started picking up since the beginning of Ramadan last year in 2014 up until now.

Now with regards to Egypt, Egypt pretty much continued a very important role as far as trying to mobilize the region itself by establishing what you would call a Joint Arab Force, which the GCC states actually wanted to do, too, but they kind of fell behind with regards to the situation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia due to the fact that Qatar supposedly supported the Muslim Brotherhood. They fell behind as far as coordination, but their end state was to form a unified military command.

Now Egypt played a role as far as trying to build a Joint Arab Force, which is, by design, that all Arab forces get together to fight against any extremism or terrorist groups within the region that are creating some sort of instability, for instance, countering ISIL, or the Houthis in Yemen. That was very, very important as far as mobilizing the region itself, but you have a situation where Egypt kind of pushed for this because they are also dealing with some internal issues with regards to countering terrorism internally, as far as Daesh and also in Libya—Egypt conducted air strikes against ISIL in Libya. There's a lot of internal-external concerns that Egypt was experiencing.

Also you have Jordan, which was extremely overwhelmed due to the fact that they're dealing with a refugee flow coming from Syria as well as the shake-up with their border security along the Al Anbar province with Iraq and Jordan. They're dealing with a lot of side effects coming from both ways. Jordan, too, which was viewed as very important to GCC states, wants GCC states to contribute more because Jordan, as well, took the lead as far as getting involved in air strikes initially with UAE [United Arab Emirates]. Jordan also played a very instrumental role in allowing the United States to utilize its country to train up the rebel groups that were against Damascus, as well as Jordan worked very closely with the coalition to make sure that countering ISIL was very achievable.

Jordan played a very important role, but as the Yemen mission picked up, Jordan became very vocal and concerned about GCC states not necessarily contributing more to the fight against ISIL and becoming too focused on the Yemen mission, which is a Saudi-led mission. You had the [Saudi] minister of defense, who is about 28 years-old right now, who was actually spearheading this mission in Yemen, and the focus was definitely on that. Then a month later, you also saw that you had bombings from ISIL in Saudi Arabia that led to more concern among Saudi Arabia and the rest of GCC states about threats from ISIL. Then subsequently, you had the bombings in Kuwait against a Shia mosque.

There were a lot of concerns going on, but the contributions towards the threat kind of fluctuates with the GCC states, but as more and more threats are approaching the region, especially internally, the more that provokes the GCC states to provide more to the counter-ISIL coalition.

ALEX WOODSON: What would you say the current status is? We're speaking a week after the bombings in Kuwait. Is it too early to tell what effect that will have on the mission or do you think this is kind of a new stage in the fight against ISIL with the GCC and Jordan? Maybe they understand Jordan's position that this is something that we have to focus on, maybe take a little bit of attention away from Yemen?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: My assumption is that the GCC states want to provide more both humanitarian- and military-wise, despite that the Yemen mission is going on right now.

Also, the GCC states want to show that there is some sort of cohesion between Sunni and Shia groups in their own countries. Like for instance, in Kuwait, I think those attacks were very deliberate due to the fact that the Shia population is well-integrated into the Kuwaiti society. They have Shia representation in their parliament. They're well-respected in their country. There's not a lot of strife between the Sunni and Shias. Based on those attacks, that was very, very deliberate to make sure they can kind of divide the Shia and Sunni population in the country itself.

Bahrain saw that, as well, and that's why immediately when the bombings happened, both Bahrain and Kuwait called on a prayer of cohesion between the Sunni and Shias to show that they are unified. They get along. There's no problem. There's this psychological piece to it where they want to show cohesion, but also this probably will provoke GCC states to provide more to the counter-ISIL coalition.

Just a week before the bombing, too, Kuwaitis had actually provided medical aid to the Iraqis. They're committed, and I'm pretty sure because of the threat, GCC states will provide more.

ALEX WOODSON: Looking at another big picture issue—people in the United States have been saying this for years ever since the Iraq War kind of got out of control: You have three distinct groups in Iraq. You have the Sunnis, the Shia, and the Kurds. So the thinking goes, why not just have three states in Iraq where everyone can practice their religion in the way that they choose and they could have their own governments? You have some thoughts about maybe why it's not such a great idea. As we're involved in another war in Iraq, these thoughts come up again.

What do you think about the idea of a three-state solution for Iraq? Or what do you think Iraq could look like optimally once ISIL is defeated, hopefully in the near future?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes, based on my return back to the States, I've noticed that there was just a lot of policy critics in the media who were a little bit more in favor of forming some sort of three-state solution for Iraq, which is not such a bad debate to talk about due to the fact that you want to know how the country will look post-ISIL —because naturally, this threat or the mission against ISIL is going to change Iraq. The point of figuring out, "Okay, in order to fully address sectarian strife between the Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, let's just split it up into three."

Well, then, the problem with that is first, how is that going to happen when you want to draw a line between the Sunnis, Shias? "Oh, okay, Al Anbar is all Sunni, then Baghdad's just Shia." Eventually, that's going to be contentious on how you would demarcate that situation.

Also, if you do have three states—especially with the Sunni territory—you'll probably have Daesh or ISIL eventually taking advantage of that actual state itself. There's some negative effects as far as forming into three.

Also, you've got to look at a situation like this: The most important thing right now is that the Iraqis have to defeat ISIL, and in order to do that, they have to achieve national unity. The prime minister recognized that. When he became the prime minister in the fall of 2014, he said, "I want to unify Iraq," and this is why they were able to secure the oil deal in December of 2014. The Kurds and the Shia-led government were able to agree on the oil deal, which was unprecedented due to the fact that when Maliki was in, he was against a deal. He even wanted to push Baghdad away from the Kurds as much as possible.

There's a lot of progression going on as far as working towards getting the country unified. There is still some sort of division among the three, but the Iraqis want it, the government wants it, and it's going to just take time. I'm not sure if it's going to be on America's watch, but the Iraqis want to achieve national unity. It can happen; it's just they're at their own pace.

Now I definitely learned this lesson of why the Iraqis need to achieve national unity during the Tikrit operations when I was in Iraq. At that time, the Iraqis were able to win Tikrit operations due to the fact that they worked together. The Shia-led government worked very closely with the Sunni tribal groups in order to secure that area and defeat ISIL. Also at that time, the government of Iraq or the ISF did not need Shia militias to intervene. At the end, the Iraqis actually won the hearts and minds of the Sunni tribal groups. That's a very important achievement for the Iraqis.

Now afterwards, with the fall of Ramadi, that definitely became a concern, but the Iraqis learned more and more how important national unity is due to the fact that one of the reasons why the Iraqis lost Ramadi is due to the fact that the government of Iraq didn't really coordinate effectively with the Sunni groups, especially with the police command, which is Sunni-driven. At that point, the Iraqis knew that, "Okay, in order to move forward, especially to win the major counter-offense in Mosul, we have to work with the Sunni tribal groups in Al Anbar."

That's one of the reasons why 450 U.S. troops were moved forward there—to help facilitate that as well as to train up those Sunni tribal groups—because it is extremely crucial for the Shia-led government to work closely with those Sunni tribal groups in order to win the counter-offense in Mosul, which is probably going to be later on. I'm not sure when the time frame will be, but it's based on the Iraqis' pace.

ALEX WOODSON: You're talking about the Iraqi government and the military and how they understand this need for national unity. Did you get a sense, when you were in Iraq, of the actual citizens on the ground, just everyday people in Iraq? Has the fight against ISIL brought them closer together? Is there a sense among all Iraqis that, "We need to do it—Sunni, Shia, Kurd—we need to band together and defend our country," or is there still kind of sectarian strife among your average citizens in Iraq?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: You still have the situation where sectarian strife is still there, especially with the older generation, but then you also have especially the government that shows that, "In order for us to overall defeat ISIL, we have to work together," and, you know what? The Iraqis noticed that from the beginning of the mission in 2014 when ISIL took a lot of areas in Iraq, the Kurds, the Shia, and Sunnis—a majority of them—understood that, "In order to defeat this threat, we need to work together." Now, the commitment piece is here and there, you're going to see some are going to be committed to it and some are not, but I think as they move forward, they're seeing the growing importance of being unified.

ALEX WOODSON: One other thing I wanted to talk with you about—you worked very closely with the Iraqi Security Forces when you were in Iraq. They've gotten a lot of bad press over the last year or so. That's probably an understatement. They've been accused of abandoning their posts in different cities in Iraq. There was a story today about an Iraqi air force jet accidentally bombing a residential neighborhood in Baghdad. What was your experience like working with them?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: From the beginning, since last year during the Ramadan period, we have to always remember when the mission started, the Iraqi Security Forces were dysfunctional. They were combat-ineffective. When the United States first started working with the Iraqis, a lot of divisions had collapsed within the Iraqi Security Forces; loss of confidence, loss of morale, loss of leadership—especially leadership of commanders within the security forces—so you have that piece while you're going through a situation of them countering a threat. That's like getting into a fight with someone while your leg is broken.

We spent a lot of our time trying to restore confidence in the Iraqi Security Forces, and that is a lot of work because when you're combat-ineffective, you have just an array of issues going on from different parts of the security forces itself, whether it's structure, readiness, logistics issues, administrative issues—it takes time for them just to repair themselves.

As far as working with them, I've definitely learned that there's a lot of work that needs to get done, but the confidence piece is very important, and when you're working with them, you want to help restore their confidence as far as moving forward with the counter-offenses, despite that they are at a disadvantage internally. That was very important—just restoring their confidence, building their morale. That part of the mission was very important.

ALEX WOODSON: What does that mean, exactly, restoring their confidence and building their morale? Is it pep talks, or is it actually showing them, "This is what you do in this situation"?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: A little bit of both. Like during the Tikrit operations, when they won, that was a good point. You could tell at that time, they were more confident as far as moving forward. From that point, that's when we kept their confidence up more and more and more as they move forward to the Al Anbar mission.

That was a very, very, very critical stage on, "Okay, they've noticed that they can do it. Now this is a way they can move forward." Then again, you've got to also notice, too, their morale is going to be low at times when they've noticed that one-third of their country is pretty much run by or taken by a terrorist group. When you see that you have a situation like that, it's very disturbing and it can really hurt you.

You also have a situation where people have lost family members due to the fact of what's going on in the country. Sometimes, people kind of underestimate the situation, but in terms of the social piece of it—"Hi, how are you doing? How's your family?"—that means a lot to them in their culture. That piece of it is very important as well as advising and assisting them, as far as building up their counter-offensives and making sure they're confident in the air strikes that are going on in the country and analyzing the effects of that. Those things are very important.

ALEX WOODSON: Do they have support among the general population at large, the Iraqi Security Forces? I could see how some Iraqis see Americans training them and—while they're not terrorist sympathizers—they might still be a little suspicious of their military right now.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: It's mixed. You also have a lot of people who are IDPs [internally displaced peoples] in the country so their morale is very low. They're not even confident about the government itself or the country itself, and then you have some like the prime minister who are just boosting the confidence as much as possible, so it's very mixed.

ALEX WOODSON: The last question about this: Do the Iraqis—just regular Iraqis and also the Iraqi Security Forces—see themselves as part of this much larger fight with the GCC, with the Americans, with different European countries that are helping out? Do they see themselves as, you know, "This is a fight that's bigger than just us," or are they just concentrating on Iraq right now?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Both. I'll tell you as far as the bigger picture piece: You do see the prime minister traveling to different parts of the world, as far as speaking on behalf of the Iraqis. I thought one point that was very interesting when he actually met with a couple officials in Saudi Arabia, the prime minister mentioned to them, "I do not want this conflict in Iraq to turn into a regional conflict where it's the Sunnis against the Shias." He's kind of showing you in a way that, "Look, Iraqis are Iraqis. We're not here to favor entirely Iran, and we're not here to totally favor the Sunnis. We want to work together to fight against ISIL. ISIL is different. It is a barbaric group. It's not Muslim. This is why here we need to work together instead of looking in to the context of this as a Sunni verses Shia issue."

ALEX WOODSON: I think that's about it from me. Anything else that you wanted to add? Anything else you want to talk about as far as your current plans or future plans?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: No, I'm just fine. I just want to tell you thank you so much.

ALEX WOODSON: Thank you very much.


ALEX WOODSON: Again, this was Asha Castleberry, and my name is Alex Woodson.

This has been the Carnegie New Leaders podcast. You can find us as and iTunes. Thank you very much. Thanks for listening.

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