U.S. and Iraqi soldier near Mosul, October, 2016. CREDIT: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:U.S._Soldier_prepares_for_key_leader_engagement_to_assess_Iraqi_security_force_checkpoints_at_Q-West.jpg">Spc. Christopher Brecht/U.S. Army</a>
U.S. and Iraqi soldier near Mosul, October, 2016. CREDIT: Spc. Christopher Brecht/U.S. Army

Asha Castleberry on Trump's Generals and the Fight Against ISIS

May 24, 2017

Asha Castleberry, Fordham professor and U.S. Army veteran, gives detailed updates of the campaigns against ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa and the endlessly complicated Syrian Civil War. She also discusses the ups and downs of Trump's strategy in the Middle East and the influence of Secretary Mattis and National Security Advisor McMaster.

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders Podcast. I'm Alex Woodson.

Today I'm joined again by Asha Castleberry. She is a professor in Fordham University's Political Science Department, a fellow at Foreign Policy Interrupted, and a U.S. Army veteran.

Asha, thanks for coming by today.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Thank you, Alex.

ALEX WOODSON: We are speaking today on the morning after the horrific attack in Manchester, England. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility and has shown us once again that even though it has lost large amounts of its territory in Iraq and Syria, it is still capable of inflicting major damage on Western Europe and North America.

Just to start, what were your thoughts watching the news last night and this morning on this tragedy?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: That is exactly what I thought of once I heard that ISIS claimed the attacks in Manchester, that as a result of them losing territory and strongholds, especially in Raqqa and Mosul, they are going to definitely try to make sure that they maintain some sort of relevance, or try to be relevant in the West, by pursuing asymmetric threats. Especially during the eve of Ramadan, which is coming up, you are going to see more aggression coming from ISIS, so I am not surprised that they have actually done this.

ALEX WOODSON: Was Manchester a city that intelligence had focused on? Did this come out of nowhere, or were there warning signs leading up to this?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Based on the early reporting, what I've been following is that there have been some reports as far as some suspicion with developments similar to what happened in Brussels and Paris where you had suspects that may be pursuing asymmetric threats in pursuit of supporting ISIS.

But we also have to look at this as a grand strategy, like what General Petraeus mentioned before when he proposed the recent strategy for the United States where we are going to be focused on the strongholds. He said, "We have to make sure that some of these foreign fighters do not return back to where they came from originally." So there could be some sort of connection in that sense, that this person may be a former foreign fighter who came from these strongholds. We'll see as news develops along the way.

ALEX WOODSON: Turning our attention to the Middle East, we talked in late August when the Iraqi Army was starting its effort to take back control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. I believe that operation started in October?


ALEX WOODSON: I think it's about nine months later. What is the status of this operation and the operation against ISIS in general?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: We definitely have made some progress as far as moving forward in Mosul. It has been quite tough because, as mentioned before, ISIS has had control of Mosul since 2014, so they have been able to build up well-sophisticated areas in terms of booby traps and tunnels. They have been able to beef up some of their defenses in one of the largest cities in Iraq.

We have been able to gain some momentum in eastern Mosul, and now moving along into western Mosul there has been some progress. It has been somewhat slow, but I am confident that we are going to definitely liberate Mosul overall, it is just going to take some time.

ALEX WOODSON: There was a Washington Post article yesterday that described the battle in very stark terms. The lede was: "The last handful of neighborhoods held by the Islamic State in Mosul will likely be the most difficult to retake despite nearly eight months of street-by-street fighting." It went on to quote U.S. Army Colonel Patrick Work, who said that "the next phase of the battle will be extremely violent" and "the hardest days are still to come."

I know you said that they have been entrenched there for almost three years at this point. What does that look like? Why does it make it so hard specifically to get them out of the city and retain control?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: If you understand the layout of the counteroffensive, the Iraqis, especially the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) or the Peshmerga forces, are in the lead in this. We are actually advise-and-assist, so they are on their time. Now that Ramadan is coming up, it is a different type of momentum.

It is going to take some time versus if we were in the lead where we were out there in an offensive posture, I think it would definitely accelerate the progress there. We are there to support the coalition as far as leadership, but they are in the lead of making sure that they liberate the area. That is why it is going to definitely take some time.

ALEX WOODSON: The fighting might slow down a little bit during Ramadan; is that what you mean?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Absolutely. What we're trying to push is to make sure that we continue the same momentum despite Ramadan because they are definitely going to be more aggressive.

ALEX WOODSON: Is Mosul the focus of operations right now? I'm sure the American military and its allies are looking at other places, but is it all focused on Mosul right now?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes. It has been since 2014. As a matter of fact, when Mosul was captured by ISIS, we wanted to initially go straight forward to liberating Mosul, but we noticed that that was too much of a rush, that there was a build-up as we were trying to reach that ultimate goal of liberating Mosul. We had to liberate key areas surrounding Mosul in order to make sure we could overall retake Mosul. But it was definitely going to take time, especially in liberating areas in Al Anbar, which are very key. That ties into the Mosul operation.

Bringing everybody like the Kurds, the Shia and Sunni groups to work together, that was one piece that slowed it down in building up to Mosul. Also, making sure that we were able to expand our posture as we maintained key areas outside of Mosul, so that is why it took such a long time.

This is a sign of progress going from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. There is a sense of continuity between the two, but it is a sign of progress since 2014.

ALEX WOODSON: I remember back then—we talked in 2015—the first time we talked you said that it was so important for Iraqis to be unified against this threat. It sounds like that has improved in the last couple of years.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes. They know that in order to make sure that security is in place and that they can claim certain areas, they have to make sure that that threat is out of there first.

ALEX WOODSON: After Mosul, is Raqqa next? Raqqa is the self-proclaimed capital [of ISIS territory] in Eastern Syria. I imagine that would be a very tough operation. Is that immediately what comes after Mosul, or is there some work that needs to be done to—

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: It is actually occurring at the same time. It is just that you hear in the media different times, "Oh, Mosul, oh, Raqqa." Just like what Secretary Carter actually said, we're going to target both cities at the same time; Raqqa, which is the de facto capital for ISIS as well as Mosul. Whichever area gets liberated first, that is what is going to get a lot of the attention.

ALEX WOODSON: So Raqqa could be liberated before Mosul potentially?


ALEX WOODSON: Those are the two big pieces. Once those two fall, I guess ISIS really won't have much of a stronghold—maybe in some of the rural areas, but as far as cities it is going to be pretty tough for them to—

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Right. They understand that that may happen. That is why they are also pursuing more asymmetric threats outside of Mosul, like in the Diyala Province in Iraq. They are continuously attacking those key areas, as well as in Baghdad, around the parliament area; they are still continuously attacking those areas. They're trying to maintain some sort of presence as much as possible because they know that they are being weakened as they are losing their stronghold.

ALEX WOODSON: Moving on to something somewhat related, something which flew under the radar last week with all the news out of Washington—and we'll get to that a little later—there was an American airstrike on pro-Syrian government forces in Southern Syria. What was the purpose of the strike?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: If you're talking about near the border, what has been going on is that the operations have expanded to where we are now trying to influence the outcome of the Iraqi-Syrian border. The pro-regime forces are actually trying to establish themselves along that border, but they posed a threat to our Syrian rebels at that time, so what the United States felt at that time was that they needed to prevent that from happening by attacking those convoys.

Central Command (CENTCOM) explained that when they released the statement that they were a threat to our allies along the Iraqi-Syrian border. There have been a lot of different groups trying to run out there, trying to establish themselves, and at that time the pro-regime forces were on their way there to establish themselves along the Iraqi-Syrian border, and we had to make sure that our allies were protected at that time.

ALEX WOODSON: Between this strike and the April 7th strike in response to Assad's chemical weapons attack, is this a sign that the United States is becoming more involved in the Syrian Civil War, or are these just two strikes that are a one-off and don't really indicate a grander strategy?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: I think it is definitely a sign that we are showing some sort of aggression toward the Bashar al-Assad pro-regime forces. As you mentioned before, the chemical attacks, I was surprised that we were in the business of being upset about human rights violations. President Trump mentioned that he was not too pleased about the photos he saw with regard to that.

Then let's not forget about the situation with the mass killings in Damascus when we came across some imagery that there were over 700,000, I think, bodies buried within the prison systems. That was just really, really disturbing. That was also a sign of human rights violations. As far as our strategy in Syria, we have shown we are not too pleased with the human rights issues that are coming from the Bashar al-Assad regime.

With regard to the targets toward the pro-regime forces, that is definitely a sign of aggression. We are definitely building up our defenses in Syria compared to under the Obama administration.

ALEX WOODSON: Do you think we can expect more of these types of limited airstrikes focused on specific goals?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes, absolutely, especially in Raqqa as we are trying to win that counteroffensive.

ALEX WOODSON: The fight against ISIS and helping out some of the Syrian rebels against the pro-Assad forces, are they seen as the same operation? Or is this two different—I'm sure military leaders are communicating together, but how is this viewed in the military?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: It is definitely separate. Countering ISIS is definitely the number one priority, but what is evolving here where we are also countering the Bashar al-Assad regime, I think the military is further figuring out that we are now in the business of targeting the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Especially if you watch how Syria has unfolded over the past couple of years, the Bashar al-Assad regime has lost key areas over the years; just losing, losing areas. They have been weakened during the Syrian crisis, and there is a lot of speculation that Russia, Iran, and even Hezbollah are aware that, "Hey, Bashar al-Assad may have to step down. Who do we replace him with?"

The United States definitely understands that there is some momentum where the Bashar al-Assad regime is losing territory, losing influence, and possibly has to be replaced soon, so I think that is building our confidence to counter the Bashar al-Assad pro-regime forces.

ALEX WOODSON: Last thing on Syria: In a New York Times article about the attack that we just talked about in Southern Syria, the U.S. airstrike, they also reported that in regard to the war in Eastern Syria, where we were talking about how Raqqa is still controlled by ISIS: "Two competing coalitions—backed by air power from the United States in one case and from Russia in the other—are racing to the same goal, creating a potentially volatile situation."

What does that mean exactly? That sounds pretty ominous.

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: I'm not surprised that that has been reported, because this has been a very complex battlefield where you have competing interests going on, and sometimes they bump heads here and there.

For instance, when we realized that arming the Syrian Kurds in our strategic interest in order to liberate Raqqa has been supported, but at the same time the Turks were targeting the Syrian Kurds, that became a big issue for the Department of Defense (DoD), or just the United States overall, for our strategy as far as liberating Raqqa. So you have these competing interests.

Even in Eastern Syria there was a situation where Russia, Iran, and, I think, Turkey had agreed upon the destabilization zones in certain parts of Syria. Al-Qaeda was really pissed off about that, and they retaliated by going against their forces as well. So you have a lot of competing interests, and it becomes very complex as far as looking at the battlefield.

ALEX WOODSON: I know we have a very different administration now, but what is the status of U.S.-Russia cooperation or communication in Syria?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: I think we're at a point where we are trying to look into continuously pursuing the de-confliction air asset situation, where we are making sure that we are communicating with each other. Then again, you have this other situation where as we are becoming more aggressive toward the al-Assad regime, Russia is becoming a little more upset about that situation. They said that is one reason why Russia is actually arming the Taliban, because as we are showing that we're not supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime and we are becoming more aggressive, they become more aggressive in other areas like in Afghanistan, where they're arming the Taliban. So it is a very interesting situation.

I think we are at a point where we want to also establish safe zones in Syria, and Russia wants to do it as well. We have to work with them in that situation, so you will see some sort of cooperation with regard to establishing those safe zones. But remember, Russia started talking about that without us in the beginning, and we were like, "Hmm, what's going on with this?" We're waiting for them to come back with us so we can work together on how to establish those safe zones, and also establish humanitarian corridors within those safe zones so Syrian refugees can go back.

I'm not sure if you're tracking this, but there are a lot of returnees from Lebanon and Jordan because everybody is in the business of trying to return them. It is not a very popular discussion right now, but it has been happening, and I think the United States with this administration is in the business of trying to return some of these Syrian refugees. I think it is in our strategic interest to work with Russia to establish those safe zones.

ALEX WOODSON: That is not something that I have really been thinking about, but it is obvious that people would want to go home.

To change the subject a little bit, when we last spoke in August 2016 before the election, you expressed some serious reservations about Donald Trump's readiness to be commander-in-chief. This was around the episode where he disparaged the Khan family, which was very troubling for current and former military officials as well as, I would imagine, most Americans.

Four months into this presidency, how has Trump handled his role as commander-in-chief in your opinion?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: There are some ups and downs. The ups are that I actually like that he has empowered veterans to help him in his foreign policy. As you know, General McMaster and General Mattis are well-respected generals that service members or veterans' communities love, so I do like that he has empowered the veterans' community to come forth and be part of the foreign policy discussion. So that is one thing.

Another thing, too, that I think is a good and a bad; I am getting this impression that defense is the only solution in addressing some of our international security issues, and that is not always the case. Defense is not always the answer when it comes to resolving some key issues around the world, but it seems like it is in the lead among the two others; development and diplomacy. It seems like defense is more in the lead.

That is sometimes necessary, and sometimes it is not necessary. If you look at the situation in North Korea, yes, a military option, as you can see, is becoming more and more of a situation we're pursuing as far as addressing the North Korean leadership. But diplomacy too is very important as far as engaging with the North Koreans. I think we should use them at the same time, both of them, and I don't believe that strategic patience should go out the window. I think we should definitely pursue both defense and diplomacy when it comes to North Korea.

Then when you think about development, it hasn't been really discussed. If you look at the new budget, it has been out the window where we want to cut it up. I think that is what my big concerns are; that the new administration is not necessarily looking at them as all on the same playing field; that defense is more in the lead as far as addressing our national security issues.

As far as the down part of it, I would say that as a commander-in-chief I would want to see more of a comprehensive strategy for key areas, especially with Afghanistan or in Somalia. Right now in Afghanistan it is unsure what is going on. We still have a lot of soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. Do we have an exit strategy? Are we going to still stay there as a result of learning that when we pulled out of Iraq in 2011 that was a mistake and we went right back in?

I don't see that there has been a lot of talk about Afghanistan. It has come up, and then it dies out due to the fact that Iraq and Syria are the main discussion. But I would want to see more of a comprehensive strategy on what we are going to be doing in Afghanistan in the upcoming years.

ALEX WOODSON: You were mentioning the roles of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor. Do you really see their influence on this administration? Does it seem like Trump is taking their advice? I am sure you were probably familiar with them before they took on these roles. Do you see specific things like, "Oh, yes, that seems like General Mattis, something that he'd be interested in"?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes, I do. I'll give you one example. General Mattis had one time said on Capitol Hill that he supported the Iran deal. During President Trump's campaign, he said, "I think that's the most stupid deal ever in history." Now we are at a point where we may stay in.

Recently, President Trump spoke with the Saudis. He did not say that he would pull out of the Iran deal, so I am figuring that they are going to stay in the Iran deal because they—just like what Rex Tillerson said recently, we're seeing that the Iranians are actually staying committed to this new deal. During the campaign it was looked upon as a stupid deal, but I think internally Mattis and even McMaster and Tillerson had communicated that, "No, we should stay in the Iran deal."

Also, you do see a lot of continuity that is coming out of the Obama administration that General Mattis supported. Under the Trump administration we are still doing some of the same things that we did under President Obama, so if there were any dramatic changes, I would say that this would be coming more from Mattis than from Donald Trump. I think Donald Trump has a lot of support, or he really looks for advice from the generals. If you're not a billionaire, he definitely listens to general officers.

ALEX WOODSON: Speaking of billionaires, you were talking about how development has taken a big hit. I guess a lot of that falls under the State Department with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the billionaire, probably a billionaire. [Editor's note: According to Forbes, Tillerson is worth $330 million.]

As someone formerly in the military, someone who knows the inner workings of the Defense Department, what does it mean when the State Department is understaffed and doesn't have the budget it needs? What does that mean for the Defense Department?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: That is a big hit. I'm not sure if you were tracking this letter that came out about three months ago when the first budget proposal was released. A lot of people saw that there was a big cut in diplomacy, and automatically about 120 general officers had signed a letter saying, "We do not support this decision because we need them, especially in the field."

A lot of Americans don't know this, but in the field, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, we do have military presence there to help respond to security threats, but the embassy is also very key as far as working with the host nation, making sure that some of our cooperation is in place, and also our long-term strategy is in place. They really work on that long-term strategy, so when they're understaffed, especially in places in Iraq, it is very hard to maintain a lot of interests that are going on and maintain those key relationships in those countries. When you're understaffed, the less representation we have in those countries, and it is hard to secure those relationships we need.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to wrap up, leaving aside politics and how you feel about Trump as a person and as a president, I think we can all agree that the White House right now seems disorganized and chaotic. What effect does this have on the military, if any?

ASHA CASTLEBERRY: The military still drives on. We are paying attention. And just to be honest with you, it could be at times uncomfortable for a service member, but we're all about execution, so whatever orders we're getting we are executing them. Despite that, there may be some instability going on in the higher level, but we are all about execution. So for those soldiers who are out there involved in the Mosul operation or the Raqqa operation, they are very focused on getting things done. They are not necessarily paying attention to the instability in the White House or in the agencies. I think they're just driving on for the most part and making sure that they're protecting their country.

ALEX WOODSON: That is good to hear. Thank you very much for coming, Asha Castleberry.


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