ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders Podcast. My name is Alex Woodson.
Thanks for coming, Asha.
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Thank you so much for having me again.
ALEX WOODSON: Sure.
We'll talk a little bit about the fight against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) later on. But first, I actually saw Asha on TV about a month ago. It was the last night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), and I was at JFK Airport in New York waiting for a flight. The TV was on, but the volume was very low. Everyone was still watching, waiting for Hillary Clinton's speech. So I look up at one point, and standing right next to General John Allen while he spoke on the main stage was Asha Castleberry. There were a bunch of other veterans on the stage too, but, Asha, you really got the prime spot, right next to him. How did that come about?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Thank you for the recognition. You gave me so much credit I'm not sure if I deserve it. But yes, I was proud to stand on stage, especially with General Allen, which is amazing, because when I was actually deployed in Iraq and Kuwait, General Allen was also in the area working on some coalition work for President Obama. So being onstage with him felt such an honor because we were once in the Middle East together. We didn't work together personally, but we worked together against the threat. And then, on top of that, here we reunited at the DNC, which was a coincidence.
But I was so proud to stand onstage with him and the rest of the veterans and military family members due to the fact that it is so important that beyond the Obama administration we bring in a leader who has good judgment and is very competent about foreign policy, especially in a region like the Middle East where it's very volatile. We have troops present in the area, so we need a good leader, who can move forward with an agenda that is healthy for our foreign policy.
ALEX WOODSON: Just when you're thinking about the 2016 presidential election, you're talking to other veterans, what kind of things do they say when you talk about Hillary Clinton and when you talk about Donald Trump? What's the general feeling that you get among veterans?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Well, there's a stark difference, especially due to the fact that some of the comments that the Republican candidate has made, especially after he made the comments about the Khan family, just making some not so nice comments about them. So that was a big disturbance for the veterans community.
That also proved to the veterans community that when you make those comments like that you're not ready to be a commander-in-chief. A commander-in-chief understands that when it comes to a Gold Star family, you do not get into disputes or disagreements with them. They have gone through a lot, they have gone through a big loss, to protect our country or our national security. So that was a very, very sensitive, delicate situation, where veterans who are both on the right and left united and spoke against Donald Trump's comments.
ALEX WOODSON: So do you think that really changed a lot of people's minds? Do you think that some people in the military might have been for Donald Trump before those comments and then they're looking at him in a different light now?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: I think there were some concerns prior to that incident. But that moment about the Khan family definitely moved over some conservatives to unite with Democrat or liberal veterans, to unite together saying, "Hey, we need a commander-in-chief who understands how to take care of a Gold Star family."
ALEX WOODSON: Regardless of who wins the election, there's going to be a new commander-in-chief in January. Is the military planning for a Hillary Clinton administration, or are they planning for a Donald Trump administration, or are they just waiting to see what's going to happen? What's the thought process into how the military will actually go about its business with a new commander-in-chief and what they're doing now?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: They are planning for both. As of now, we're still moving forward with our top priorities in terms of foreign policy and national security. One is the ISIS mission or security cooperation with other countries.
But I think moving forward we're still moving with the same Obama agenda. We can't really say, "Hey, if this"—we do know how to kind of flex out if there are any changes in our foreign policy. We're the executors. We're not the ones that push the agenda. That's up to the administration. But we're pretty much flexible about changes because that's our job. We can't necessarily tell the president or the next president or the next commander-in-chief what to do. We just have to be flexible with those changes, especially if there's a drastic change.
ALEX WOODSON: Beyond appearing onstage at the Democratic National Convention, are you doing anything else to help out in the campaign? I looked at your Twitter account. You've definitely been very active on Twitter. Is there anything official that you're doing, or are you just acting more as a concerned citizen?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Just as a concerned citizen. I'm really big on amplifying my message about who should be the next commander-in-chief through social media.
What I've noticed with presidential campaigns compared to 2008, Facebook was the big deal as far as amplifying your messages, but now it's multiple outlets, especially Twitter. So I support anything that shows what kind of policies we should support, with regards to concerns or things that are needed for the U.S. military, the veterans, and military families. I think Twitter is the best way to engage with the rest of the community outside of the veterans and military families network to show what we support and what we do want and do not want in a commander-in-chief.
Moving on to the fight against ISIS, it has been in the background, I think, in the news because everyone's obsessed with this presidential election. So what is the status right now? I was just watching on CNN this morning the Iraqi army is getting ready for a fight to take back Mosul, which is I think the second largest city in Iraq, a northern Iraqi city that's been under the control of ISIS for about two years now.
So what's the status and what's exactly going on the way you see it right now?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: You just said it. The anti-ISIS military campaign is preparing thoroughly to liberate Mosul. But it's going to take a lot of preparation. This is a counteroffensive that they want to make sure that they actually win once they do it, once they launch it for the first time.
I'm confident that it will happen. This is definitely a big push from the Obama administration before President Obama leaves office—he wants to liberate Mosul.
Mosul has actually been an end-state target for the anti-ISIS military coalition for quite some time, since 2014. There have been some attempts to try to liberate it, but evidently we failed prior to now. So this is a big deal.
And it's also going to be very challenging and difficult due to the fact that ISIS has been in that area for two years. So there's a lot of asymmetric threats, a lot of buildup they've done in that area.
Also, it's a little bit convoluted in terms of who actually has ownership of some of Mosul. You've got KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) involved, you've got Sunni tribal groups involved, you have Baghdad involved. So you have a different set of agreements on who has ownership of what area. But again, today they have to work all together to liberate Mosul.
So I personally don't think that the challenge is going to be necessarily liberating Mosul. I think it's going to be more like what General Petraeus had mentioned in a recent op-ed he wrote, that post-liberation, trying to reach a reconciliation agreement is actually going to be more of a bigger deal or will be more difficult, because to actually bring everybody to a table to agree on how this new area that's liberated is going to be governed is going to be more of a difficulty than actually liberating the area.
I thought that was actually a very interesting point due to the fact that Iraq is still actually experiencing a lot of political uncertainty and instability. Right now in Baghdad, the parliament is actually going through a lot of issues with regards to trying to overthrow or get rid of the defense minister right now, which is a big, big, big move for the ISF, or Iraqi Security Forces, due to the fact that if you want to get rid of a defense minister while conducting current operations, especially going against Mosul, that's a big leadership change for the Iraqis. So there's still some political instability going on in Baghdad that could somewhat impact current operations against ISIS.
ALEX WOODSON: This brings me another one of the questions that I wanted to ask you. When we first talked about a year ago, in July 2015, I think maybe your most important point was that Iraqis need to be unified in the fight against ISIS. It sounds like that's still kind of a problem for Iraq right now.
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes. It has been still ongoing. The prime minister right now has been going through a lot in terms of maintaining some sort of political respect. Like for instance, not too long ago, before Ramadan and during Ramadan, the Sadr Movement was against Prime Minister Haider. They actually were forcing him to appoint a new cabinet of technocrat politicians. But that didn't go too well.
So there was a lot of protesting going on in the Baghdad area or the parliament area, to where they wanted to actually pressure the prime minister to appoint new technocrats. But it was pretty messy, and a lot of the coalition members that are part of the anti-ISIS military campaign wanted to make sure that that didn't impact current operations, especially the fact that ISIS will try to take advantage of areas that are hotspots like that, that have a lot of protesting going on. So you did see where ISIS tried to make an attempt to attack those areas while that was going on against the prime minister and the Sadr Movement.
So there have been a lot of recommendations to change around leadership in the parliament. But it has been somewhat challenging for the Iraqis because it shows you that they're still going through some political instability.
ALEX WOODSON: So what's the role of the American military in all of this? It seems like the actual military operations are really being led by Iraqi forces at this point, right?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes, they are. It's just advise and assist, just like what General McFarland said before he actually left. He just switched out of command with a new general officer. He said that right about now we're just working on advise and assist.
That's the main effort prior to the Mosul offensive. We want to make sure that we provide enough advise and assist to the Iraqis, as well as plan enough airstrike power, air power, and logisitcal support for the Iraqis. So those are the main things that the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, is working on right now.
ALEX WOODSON: What does that exactly mean, advise and assist? What are some specific examples of what that means for the American military?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Just advise, like—I actually did advise and assist before in Iraq not too long ago. It's just pretty much like providing consultation about airstrikes, how to coordinate airstrikes—"You might want to look at this target or that target. Here's some open spots. Maybe this is a good maneuver point for you guys now that we've shifted or moved over the threat to the other side. There's a lot of logistical consultation going on, that you may want to move in some humanitarian aid to this area because there's a lot of civilians there. You might not want to go that way because if you target that area there might be some potential collateral damage against the civilian population."
So there's all that there to provide as far as consultation for them. So it's a big thing. It's an ongoing effort.
ALEX WOODSON: You also mentioned that the challenge will be, hopefully, after Mosul is liberated, governing the city after that, just bringing the city back to life. Will the American military and American institutions be involved in that at all?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: You know, sometimes we kind of step back. If they need advice, we'll provide some sort of political consultation. But that's more for the Iraqis.
The one thing, though, that the United States wants to see is that they do come to an agreement that is fair for all groups. But usually we'll allow the Iraqis to do that. That's the one thing, because we don't want to be accused of intervening in their agreements. So they have to learn how to do that on their own. But if they ask, we will provide some sort of consultation about how to reach an agreement, about how a liberated area will look in terms of governance and security that is needed post-liberation area.
ALEX WOODSON: One other thing that we talked about actually in our second podcast, which was October 2015, was the Russian intervention, Russian airstrikes in Syria. What's going on with that today? Is there more cooperation between the United States and Russia than there was maybe a year ago?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes. The Pentagon recently released a statement that they're now working with the Russians more as far as deconfliction. Unlike how it looked last year—it was a bit messy—but now I do see that there are some improvements as far as working with the Russians. The Russians tend to use some of the airspace in Iraq, especially in the northern part of the country. So there has been more communications on them actually coming in and out of that area.
There still needs to be more improvement in terms of working with the Russians, but there's a start there, and you're starting to see where they're working together more with the United States.
ALEX WOODSON: Are the Russians intervening exclusively in Syria? You said that they're flying over northern Iraq too?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes, going from northern Iraq into Syria.
ALEX WOODSON: But their focus is mostly Syria?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes.
ALEX WOODSON: One other thing that I wanted to talk about. I've heard from many different reporters and different analysis that as ISIS gets pushed back in Iraq and Syria, you see more lashing out away from their base of operations. We've seen attacks in Paris and Brussels and Nice and Bangladesh; in Turkey there have been lots of really bad attacks there.
Is this something that you see as well, and what does the U.S. military do in these situations where you're dealing with France, you're dealing with Belgium? These are countries with their own pretty well-disciplined militaries, so what's the role of the U.S. military in this part of the fight?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Since the coalition helped liberate Sinjar, I've noticed a pattern of how ISIS is now heightening up their asymmetric warfare especially in the Western areas.
But the average person didn't realize that that's what they were doing, because many people don't know that we're actually liberating a lot of areas. So as soon as ISIS loses areas in Iraq or Syria, they tend to beef up their asymmetric warfare in the West, especially in Europe with what happened in Paris, and in the United States, as well. So I do see a pattern.
But in terms of the United States or U.S. military, what they're doing is their main effort is to make sure that we liberate these areas, especially in Iraq and Syria. But in terms of making sure that we stop more the asymmetric warfare, it's building awareness, trying to work with more local security forces in the West, to make sure—"Hey, we're liberating areas, so the shift is that they're going to try to expand more in asymmetric threats, like blow up innocent places or soft targets."
So we're trying to maintain that connection with local forces, that there's going to be some sort of connection. Now that they're losing a lot of area, and we've targeted a lot of their leadership, there's going to be a heightening up of asymmetric threats in the West.
ALEX WOODSON: So you see this still? So if Mosul's liberated, that's a huge victory for the coalition forces. Does that necessarily mean that there's going to be more attacks in the West, or is that just something that you have to look at differently maybe?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes, that's a possibility because if they're going to lose Mosul, that's going to hurt them from actually gaining enough foreign fighters. The one thing that ISIS has been winning on is messaging to their foreign fighters. Once they started winning land in 2014, that symbolized strength to a lot of foreign fighters around the world. So their recruitment went up.
But now that they're starting to lose, you start to see the trend where people are starting to not—there's not that many foreign fighters. Foreign fighters are still supporting ISIS, but it's not that many.
If they lose Mosul, it's going to decrease the amount of foreign fighters that are going to support them. So to keep them pretty much significant or important, they're going to pretty much try to expand in the Western areas. So I would assume they're going to be somewhat aggressive if they lose Mosul.
ALEX WOODSON: Yes. I just heard an Iraqi general today say on CNN that he's seeing a lot less foreign fighters than he did maybe a year ago.
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes.
ALEX WOODSON: As I said, over the last year the American media, and I think a lot of the world media, has really been consumed by this presidential election. You don't hear as much about ISIS, especially the fight in Syria and Iraq.
Does this have any effect on the military? Does the media have any effect on how the military does its job? Does it feel less pressure? It might be a strange question, but I just wonder. I mean everyone's watching the news, I guess, reading the newspapers. What's the feeling when the focus is not on this gigantic military operation?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Moving forward. When you're deployed in Iraq or Syria or whatever, you're so mission-focused that sometimes you don't think about politics; you just think about getting done what needs to get done. Like those soldiers out there who are helping provide advise and assist to the Iraqis, they're so closed out with the political issues or the political season in the United States right now. Their focus is more on Mosul. Sometimes you just zone out from the actual political developments in the United States and you're just so focused on making sure that you're reaching that end-state, to make sure you liberate Mosul.
You're still getting guidance from the Obama administration. Despite that the Obama administration is going out, you're still working with that commander-in-chief who's in office now and making sure that that mission is getting done.
ALEX WOODSON: Just one final question to wrap up: How have you seen Obama's policy change as his administration has come to an end? Have you noticed anything different?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes. When I was actually in Iraq from 2014 to 2015, there were about 3K-plus soldiers on the ground. But now there's about 4,000 or more, due to the fact that the Obama administration wants to provide more advise-and-assist teams to the Iraqis, especially for a big operation like Mosul. So I do see that there is a number of soldiers that have increased, as well as more logistics provided to the Iraqis.
ALEX WOODSON: Have you noticed anything has changed with the Iraqi armed forces in the last couple years?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes. Their performance has pretty much improved due to the fact that when you have American soldiers as well as other soldiers from other countries there to help them, it enables them to perform better. So the more we have there working with the Iraqis, the better. They perform a lot better when you have more advise-and-assist teams to help them.
ALEX WOODSON: Okay. Great. Thanks again for talking. I've learned a lot.
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Thank you so much for having me again.
ALEX WOODSON:Again, this was Asha Castleberry for the Carnegie New Leaders Podcast. My name is Alex Woodson. You can find us on carnegiecouncil.org or iTunes.