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After 40 Years Of Service, Gen. John Kelly To Retire Next Month


When General John Kelly retires next month, he will look back 45 years to the day he first put on the uniform of the U.S. Marine Corps, a uniform that kept him, he jokes, out of the Army.

JOHN KELLY: I grew up in Boston in a very, very, very Marine town. So back in my neighborhood in Boston, a working-class neighborhood, when you got your draft notice, you went down, and you took your draft physical. And then, if you passed it, you joined the Marine Corps.

MONTAGNE: Since that day in 1970, John Kelly has seen the draft turn into an all-volunteer force and America's long wars move from Vietnam to the greater Middle East. The enemy he's known best is a network, rather than a nation, of insurgents and terrorists, with the most fierce fighting during three tours commanding troops in Iraq. We reached Gen. Kelly in Miami at his last posting, the relatively calm U.S. Southern Command, where he focused mainly on stemming the flow of drugs from Latin America and thwarting drug lords he calls narco-terrorists.

I'm wondering, how likely is it that these drug networks will connect with other terrorists, such as ISIS?

KELLY: There's, in my view, no way that anyone that was involved in this network would agree to move a terrorist into the United States because I think they realize it would be bad for business. But that said, they also don't ask why you want to go to the United States. They don't check passports. They don't check bags. If you want to get into the United States, the best way, I believe, is to ride the network. There is no convergence between, say, the criminal networks and the Islamic extremist networks. But they're touching anyways. We know that some of the Islamic extremist organizations are making money off the drug trade. They're not selling the money on the streets of New York. But as an example, as the money moves out of Latin America into Western Africa and then starts the trek up into Western Europe, we know that Islamic-associated organizations are allowing it to move and charging a fare, if you will. There is money being harvested that goes into the pots of Islamic terrorist organizations. But that's where the convergence is.

MONTAGNE: It can be said that in every respect, Gen. John Kelly is typical of today's fighting force. His is a Marine family at a time when less than 1 percent of Americans serve. Both his sons fought in Iraq. The youngest was in that war's bloodiest battle, Fallujah 2004. Kelly himself was a commander of coalition forces in Iraq during those violent years, when traditional Sunni areas rose up against coalition forces alongside a new branch of al-Qaida. But that alliance didn't last. Sunni sheikhs who questioned the terrorists were targeted, their people beheaded, which is how it came to be that in 2008, when Gen. Kelly returned for his final tour overseeing the Sunni tribal area of Anbar province, the environment was entirely changed. This was what became known as the Sunni Awakening.

KELLY: Right.

MONTAGNE: Because Sunni sheikhs in Anbar province had themselves been the victims of al-Qaida in Iraq. So at that point, there was this moment in time when we were on the same side as the sheikhs in Anbar province, the Sunni sheikhs.

KELLY: Exactly right. In fact, many times in the sheikh meetings - the sheikh-downs, as we used to call them - the first couple times I was there, to say to a sheikh, you know, the last time I was here, I was trying to kill you or capture you. And the sheikh looked at me and said, yes, my brother; the last time you were here, I was trying to kill you. But I asked him, why did you come over? And they, as you pointed out, Renee, talked about the fact that al-Qaida in Iraq had started to brutalize the people. But they also said, as often as we killed you or tried to kill you, you always came back at us. And we couldn't fight you rifle-to-rifle, man-to-man. So we knew we couldn't win. And the big turning point in their minds was when President Bush said, we are not withdrawing; we're going to surge. At that point, they realized we were not going to leave. And of course, once they started coming over, they were treated well. We gained their trust.

MONTAGNE: And that would be about 2009. And I'm wondering, given that al-Qaida in Iraq has turned into what is now known as the Islamic State, where are those sheikhs now?

KELLY: It's my understanding, much like when al-Qaida in Iraq - kind of back in the old days - much as they started to brutalize or tried to exert their brand of corrupted Islamic view of life... When I said it's corrupted, the vast majority of Muslims are wonderful people, whether they live here in the United States or overseas. But anyways, it's my understanding they go into their enclaves and just protect themselves. I do not believe that the Sunni tribes have gone over to the Islamic State.

MONTAGNE: You have been seeing this in its early stages. Does ISIS feel to you like something new?

KELLY: This is an ideological thing conducted by people who are truly not representative of Islam and stuck in the seventh century or eighth century. And as a military guy, it's simple for me. My part of this equation is to kill as many of them as we can. There are other people smarter than me that can tackle the more difficult, complex part of the problem. And that is, how do you win the ideological argument? I don't think we're doing all that well on either side of that equation right now. But I think we have to steel ourselves for a fairly long war. And I'm not so sure 13 years defines the long war yet.

MONTAGNE: It is the case that in 2015, Iraq's Anbar province is back in the hands of the Islamic State. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban are now pushing into areas that had been hard-fought and won, like Sangin, where more Marines lost their lives than anywhere else, and among them, First Lieutenant Robert Kelly, Gen. Kelly's youngest son. He prefers not to speak of his personal loss, but those Taliban gains have rekindled an old question.

So many, actually, in Afghanistan ended their lives. Did the families feel it was worth it?

KELLY: This tends to be said a lot. But unless you've been in the fight, you wouldn't understand it I think. But we fight for each other. We Marines, we soldiers that have fought there, know it was worth it because we were doing it with our buddies. But I think what I tell families now is the only person really that has a right to answer that question - was it worth it? - is the young man or woman that lost their life. And I believe what they would say is they were doing what they wanted to do. They were where they wanted to be. So that's the answer, I think, to that question. It's not for us, you know, that survived it to answer it. I think it's for those young people to answer. And I think they do answer it with their - with their actions and obviously with their lives.

MONTAGNE: Gen. John Kelly is the commander of U.S. Southern Command. He will retire next month, after more than four decades of service in the U.S. Marines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.