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Retired Lieutenant General On Trump's 'New Options' For Fight Against ISIS


President Trump visits the Pentagon today and gets a briefing on the fight against ISIS. So here are some insights into what military officers are thinking. We called David Barno, who knows many of them. He hears good things about the new defense secretary, James Mattis.

DAVID BARNO: They feel good about having some retired military senior officers in prominent positions. That, at least, is a group that - they know what they think, and they know they're experienced in the rough-and-tumble world out there that the military lives in every day.

INSKEEP: As for the president himself, officers, Barno knows, are waiting to learn more. David Barno once served as the American commander in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida. As we spoke yesterday, a new president was turning attention to the Islamic State.

What the president said during the campaign about ISIS was that he wanted to bomb the stuffing out of them. He used a different word. He said at another point he was going to order his generals to come up with a plan to destroy ISIS in short order. We don't know what that entails. But let's talk through what the elements of a strategy are. What are the tools that are available to the United States in going after ISIS?

BARNO: Well, I think one of the first things that President Trump's going to realize is that we've been fighting ISIS now for several years. We've had a strategy. He may well disagree with the fundamentals of that. And if I were to shorthand what that strategy is, it's essentially, you know, by, with and through others in the region that we're trying to do this indirectly without involving 100,000 or even 150,000 American troops on the ground.

INSKEEP: Work through allies. Groups - groups inside Syria.

BARNO: Right. Absolutely. Build as many partners as we can out there. Give them as much support as we can and use...

INSKEEP: The Iraqis.

BARNO: ...American advisers. And use the - you know, the leverage of the high-end capabilities the United States has, such as our special operations forces, to do very targeted raids against, you know, critical leaders. And we can find them. And the same thing with our airpower, which is unique in the world - allows us to do precision strikes against targets all across the region. So last administration had a strategy. It was more of an indirect approach. And it was certainly a long-term approach. I think President Trump might be looking for something with some quicker results. And that could put some new options on the table.

INSKEEP: When you say long-term approach, we're thinking about, for example, in Iraq, where the army collapsed, and everyone had to recognize it was going to take another year or two or three to reorganize and get them back on the offensive, which they now are.

BARNO: Right. The last administration, the Obama administration, clearly said this is a multi-year campaign when they began it here about two-plus years ago. That's going to continue to be the case. But I do think President Trump has some other tools. He could potentially apply - he can certainly use more military force. He could elect to put American boots on the ground in larger numbers. There's been talk here just in the last few days about establishing safe zones inside of Syria.

INSKEEP: The president said in an interview with ABC wanted safe zones for refugees so they wouldn't have to leave the country.

BARNO: Right. That all entails new uses of military power. And it also entails, inevitably, a deeper commitment of Americans in that region, where they're more visible and perhaps more present on the ground. And that opens the prospect of a deeper involvement with more casualties.

INSKEEP: Does that speed up the war?

BARNO: We don't know. I mean, that's one of the unknowns. This is a group that could go to ground, could become invisible, could end up in - deeply buried in other cities in Syria that are under even the Syrian government's control. So simply by taking Raqqa, which is their sensible capital in Syria - even by taking that - doesn't assure you of an outcome that says there's no ISIS at the end of that war.

INSKEEP: Well, that's what I was wondering here, General. Listening to you, I'm wondering, what are the things you have to do to destroy ISIS?

BARNO: I think you have take apart their leadership. But I think there's been, again, a slow, deliberate campaign to do that. As you identify where these leaders are to strike them with airstrikes and perhaps special operations forces, unlike al-Qaida, ISIS is actually own territory. Taking that territory away from them and denying them all the income and all the influence they have by owning territory - that puts a big hole in their program. And they don't necessarily have a way to recover from that. But we can easily see this campaign, even with a lot of success in taking all their territory back, shift to a campaign fighting an underground ISIS in that region.

INSKEEP: How are people in the military that you know thinking about the idea of restoring the use of torture, which is something the president has not formally done but has certainly talked about doing?

BARNO: I think it's absolutely unacceptable in the minds of anyone serving in the military today that there's any prospect of going back to that. As Senator McCain has said recently, that's not the president's decision anymore.

INSKEEP: It's been outlawed by Congress.

BARNO: It's been outlawed. Last year's National Defense Authorization Act had an amendment in it that specifically prohibited the use of any interrogation techniques beyond the Army's field manual on interrogation. And the president in and of himself does not have the ability to negate that.

INSKEEP: But I was thinking about that. If the law says the Army field manual is the guide, and it prohibits torture, couldn't the president tell the secretary of defense to get in there and change the Army field manual?

BARNO: The law is specific to that particular field manual and the techniques in that field manual.

INSKEEP: So you can't change the field manual.

BARNO: It's not simply saying, change one. We can now add, you know, technique 20, which is torture. And it now complies with the law. The law, as I understand, is written in a way that would preclude any changes to those 19 approved interrogation techniques that are in the field manual now.

INSKEEP: Do the soldiers you talk to feel restrained at all because nobody can be torturing anybody?

BARNO: No. I think quite the reverse. I think there's a profound degree of unease when those techniques were being used. They do not resonate with American values. They're not the way we've behaved in previous wars. And I think the Army is very proud of the fact that the Army's field manual is now the gold standard for how we're going to treat prisoners.

INSKEEP: How do you win the war of ideas?

BARNO: That's one of the big challenges that we face since September 11, 2001. We're fighting, you know, in organizations - first al-Qaida, now the Taliban. The Iraqi insurgency for a long period of time and now ISIS - it's not built on simply armies and battle lines and tanks and airplanes but built on a corrosive set of ideas that attacks some of the primary values that the United States has. That's not something that's, you know, conducive to being wiped out by military force.

We're - and I think this is this whole idea of a long war and a protracted battle that could be, you know, a generation or two generations to really wrest control of the Middle East to find out who's going to actually own the narrative in the Middle East, where much of this ideology is coming from.

INSKEEP: The last administration regarded ISIS and groups like it as a severe problem. The new administration includes some people like the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who have spoken of it more of an existential threat, one of the gravest threats, perhaps, facing the United States. What is the right way to view the scale of the threat and therefore the amount of resources you would commit against it?

BARNO: Well, I personally disagree with Mike Flynn on his assessment. I think most of the senior general officer corps would say that. When the chairman of Joint Chiefs, Marine four-star General Joe Dunford, testified this year, he identified Russia as the principal threat to the United States. Jim Mattis, the new secretary of defense, in his testimony before he was confirmed, made a lot of the same arguments. ISIS is a serious threat.

But I think serious actors that look at the scope of the global threats out there don't see it as an existential threat that's going to take the United States to its knees. Mike Flynn has actually come out and said that he's worried in some of his earlier writings about ISIS coming here to the United States and, you know, taking over. That is not going to happen. There's no prospect in any serious imagination that that could occur. So I think they are a serious threat. But they're certainly not an existential threat.

INSKEEP: General David Barno, thanks for coming by.

BARNO: Thanks so much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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