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State Department Envoy Defends Administration's Efforts Against ISIS


The diplomat leading U.S. efforts against ISIS insists President Obama's administration does have a strategy.

BRETT MCGURK: We are working to defeat them, and we're doing some things I can't talk about to make sure we unravel the leadership structure of this organization. And I think we're going to succeed in that regard.

INSKEEP: That's Brett McGurk of the U.S. State Department, who spoke after ISIS, or ISIL, captured more territory. It drove Iraq's army out of the city of Ramadi and drove Syrian forces from the city of Palmyra. That's prompted fierce questions in Congress. Guests on this program have urged both more diplomacy and more force. When we sat with McGurk at the State Department, he said Iraqi forces fought long and hard in Ramadi and made an orderly retreat against a tough enemy.

MCGURK: We assess ISIL to be better in every respect - and this is important - better in every respect than, as predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq, or AQI. AQI, of course, is the enemy that our forces fought in Anbar Province, and we know how difficult that was. So if you consider that ISIL is better than AQI - they're better manned; they're better trained; they're better resourced; they're better fighters - and the Iraqis cannot bring to bear anywhere near the level of capacity that we could bring to bear, I think it puts in context how difficult this is going to be and how difficult we always knew this was going to be.

INSKEEP: Who has time on their side? By which I mean, do you assume that as time goes on, ISIS gets stronger and stronger or that as time goes on, they get weaker and more encumbered?

MCGURK: Well, Steve, one of the magnets to ISIL, which is different than other terrorist organizations, is this notion of the caliphate. ISIL and its leadership, they consider themselves to have an obligation to constantly be expanding the caliphate. They consider their campaign a war of flags constantly trying to expand. That is why we are so focused in making sure first that it can't expand and that we can gradually begin to really constrict its space.

INSKEEP: But because you're doing this in a particular way and not using every tool that is available to the United States, that does raise the question of time. Do you have time on your side?

MCGURK: When we put this together, it's a three-year campaign to degrade the organization. That was based upon recognizing how strong it was and also recognizing, as the president said, we don't want to put American troops in combat again in Iraq. So that's not something that we are contemplating. But we are certainly looking at other tools we might be able to use, particularly in the wake of Ramadi and assess what could we be doing better, what might we need to correct.

INSKEEP: I just want to drive at this one more time, though. Is time in your side?

MCGURK: Well, we're going to defeat ISIL, but it's going to take years. And I think we've always been clear it's going to take years.

INSKEEP: And you don't need more force in order to do that.

MCGURK: Well, we're looking to empower partners, and we had to stop the advance of ISIL, particularly in the Kurdish regions and as it was moving towards Baghdad. I think we've done that successfully. Now we're in the phase of trying to take back territory in the Sunni Arab heartlands, and that's extremely difficult. We have to give rise to tribal fighters who are going to fight, and nobody should be under any illusions of just how difficult this is going to be.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure that I understand what you're telling me. You're reminding me that the entire province - Anbar Province - is not held by ISIS or ISIL, that they're different parts held by different groups, that some of them are your friends, and that if you're going to get more force, it's going to have to be from your friends on the ground in Iraq. Is that right?

MCGURK: Well, that's right, and that's our position. That's also the position of the Iraqi government. And this government is very different than the previous government under Maliki. And when Abadi came in, he said his governing principle for how to stabilize Iraq is more decentralization. We call it a functioning federalism, and that means empowering locals to secure themselves. The people of Mosul have to ultimately liberate Mosul. The people of Anbar have to liberate and secure Anbar. You know, that's the strategy, but it's very difficult to execute, to mobilize tribal fighters to stand up and fight. This enemy is formidable, and nobody should be under any illusions of just how difficult this is going to be.

INSKEEP: What about money and weapons? Have you found a way to cut off their sources of money and weapons?

MCGURK: We've been pretty effective, Steve, in cutting off their oil trade, which was a primary source of their income before our military campaign began. We find that their primary source of funding now is in the territory they control. They collect taxes and shakedowns. We see that they're able to really sustain themselves from that and we're looking at ways to cut that back. It's a challenge. I think on the financial side, we actually are making some progress, but it's a very well-funded organization.

INSKEEP: What do you say when you hear people in Washington - analysts, experts in the area, including some sympathetic to the administration - when you hear them say the administration has no strategy?

MCGURK: Well, you know, Steve, we read everything, and we take everything into account and look at different tools we might be able to use. You know, all decisions are for the president to make, and we're discussing with him different tools we might use given the events of Ramadi. We also want to be very careful not to get overinvested because that can cause a blowback on the ground in Iraq. And the one thing I've heard in the wake of this crisis - and I've talked to Iraqis across the political spectrum, local, national - is that we are going to rise to this challenge. And what they want is help, and so we're going to do what we can to help them.

INSKEEP: Ambassador McGurk, thanks very much.

MCGURK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Brett McGurk of the U.S. State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.