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The Changing U.S. Strategy For Defeating ISIS


Now we're going to talk with someone who helped coordinate the U.S. fight against ISIS for years. In December, Brett McGurk was one of the strongest voices objecting to President Trump's announcement that he planned to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria. McGurk was the U.S. envoy to the global coalition against ISIS. He and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis both announced their resignations in reaction to President Trump's withdrawal plan. Since then the president has modified his plan, saying at least 400 troops will stay in the country.

Ambassador Brett McGurk, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BRETT MCGURK: Thank you for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You moved up your resignation date over President Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. Now that the administration has walked back its decision to immediately remove all American troops, do you regret the decision at all?

MCGURK: No, certainly not. I think, if anything, the fact that my decision, in the same week with Secretary Mattis, made the point that what the president had done was quite reckless. And if it caused him to rethink then obviously I feel even better about it.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the resignation was partly responsible for his reevaluating the plan and walking it back?

MCGURK: Well, I can't say that, but I think it made the point that to just withdraw all of our forces before the campaign was even complete was a particularly reckless and rash decision without much consideration or thought as to what would come next.

SHAPIRO: Do you think there is no plan for what's going to come next? When you left, you said the administration had no strategy.

MCGURK: Well, we did. We had a pretty good campaign plan in place. You defeat the physical caliphate, and then you need to stay on the ground for a time, in particular to support the Syrian Democratic Forces. What we did in Syria's quite remarkable. They built this force of 60,000 Syrians, Arabs, Christians, Kurds to defeat ISIS and to take down cities like Raqqa without a single American casualty.

And so we now have a force called the Syrian Democratic Forces. We need to support them. You have thousands of the most hardened ISIS fighters and their families coming out of Bagus (ph), and the SDF now needs to detain them and hold them. And so were we to just abandon the SDF, there's a good chance these people are going to be back on the streets. That's something that just cannot happen.

SHAPIRO: Given that these extremist views and the people who hold them will likely stay in the region for months or years, would you anticipate U.S. troops potentially staying there for months or years?

MCGURK: Well, what I would really advise the president to do - just stop the withdrawal order. So I think it's good that the president's obviously reconsidered his order to withdraw all U.S. forces, but I'm asking them to withdraw to about 200, which is basically a 90 percent reduction of the force of the northeast. As they're dealing with this very difficult dynamic situation, I just don't think there's much logic to it. So I would advise the president, you know, halt the withdrawal order, and give commanders and our diplomats the time and the space to work through what they're dealing with on the ground. Asking our military to withdraw in the middle of this is going to cause just increased risks to the force, increased risks to the mission and increased risk to ISIS resurging.

SHAPIRO: So on one hand, you point to the huge success of getting ISIS out of this enormous swath of Iraq and Syria that included the cities of Mosul and Raqqa. And on the other hand, you're saying there is a real threat still there. Do you think there is a risk of ISIS rebounding to where it was before? Is that the threat we're talking about?

MCGURK: I do not. I do not ascribe to the ISIS 2.0 that can come back to the level we saw in 2014. But we have seen - and again, you have to learn lessons from history - that when extremist fighters are warehoused in prisons and eventually get out, they're able to organize clandestine cells, clandestine networks. And they can resurge, and they can greatly jeopardize the stability of Iraq and they can threaten us. So that means you have to make sure that these folks never get out. And that requires some U.S. commitment. This is not an endless war. This is not American combat formations fighting. But it is enabling locals to try to ensure that these safe havens can open up.

SHAPIRO: Even if President Trump does reverse the withdrawal order, hasn't he made clear that he wants out soon, and aren't American allies and adversaries just going to inevitably wait until that eventual date arrives, even if he does postpone it?

MCGURK: Well, yes. And that's why withdrawing 90 percent, the kind of muddle-through option, could actually be the worst option. It's really you stay with the 2,000 you have and allow, again, our diplomats and commanders to work out the next phase or make clear you're leaving and make honest to the partners we're working with that they have to make accommodations with other actors to survive.

SHAPIRO: You worked on this region for more than a decade under three very different presidents, Republicans and Democrats. How does President Trump's decision-making style differ from the other presidents who you worked for?

MCGURK: Oh, boy. It's hard to answer that question because there isn't really a decision-making style. I mean, decisions are erratic. They're done without process, without deliberation, without the input of experts. And in the case of Syria, he made this hugely strategic consequential decision in late December after a call with a foreign leader, with President Erdogan of Turkey, without any process that led up to that major decision. So in terms of process, with President Trump, there is no process.

SHAPIRO: Brett McGurk, thank you so much for talking with us today.

MCGURK: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: He was the envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS before resigning in December, and he's now at Stanford University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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