NEW YORK -
Gen. James L. Jones is a military professional with a quarter-century of experience with Iraq’s Kurdish population. He has served in top US military roles and was National Security Advisor during President Barack Obama’s first two years in office. Since 2012, Gen. Jones has been CEO of the US-Kurdistan Business Council (USKBC), a trade group of US firms investing in northern Iraq. In this interview with Rudaw, he shares his views on Kurds, the fight with Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.
Rudaw: How did you get involved in the Kurdish cause?
Gen. Jones: My experience with what we now call Kurdistan dates back to 1991, when I was on active duty. After the Gulf War, we and 25, 000 international troops, mostly from Europe, spent several months on a tour of the Kurdish relief operation when they were stampeded into the mountains of southern Turkey by the trail of a chemical and biological attack by Saddam Hussein. That’s when I first got involved with the Kurds, I’ve been sympathetic to their situation ever since.
When it came time to leave the White House and do something worthwhile, I thought that the Kurdish people had always been great allies of the US, and they helped us immeasurably during the 2003 Iraq war. I wanted to help the reconstruction of Iraq with Kurdistan as its poster child. Now, with ISIS in the region, the economic imperatives of a long-term solution are still there, but it’s more difficult.
Rudaw: Do you support Kurdish calls for independence?
Gen. Jones: I don’t advocate that Kurdistan break away. It wouldn’t do them any good in the long run, certainly not now. After the disappointing results of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, I’m hopeful that the next government will have a broader vision for Iraq’s future, perhaps with three semi-autonomous entities linked to a central government. That’s the way we’re heading, only time will tell. There’s some very pressing security problems right now but I think if we can find a way ahead with the new government, and they do what they’re talking about doing, it might work out.
Rudaw: How confident are you that Iraqi forces can tackle ISIS in Mosul and elsewhere?
Gen. Jones: I’m confident that re-taking Mosul will eventually be achieved, but it shouldn’t be attempted until you know full well what the results will be. It’s going to take time. It will be interesting to see how this operation in Tikrit goes. Numerically, they have a preponderance of force of about three to one, and that is usually enough to do the job. Eventually there will be enough boots on the ground. I’m not sure where they’ll all come from but eventually to really defeat ISIS, they’re going to have to have sufficient ground operations.
Rudaw: What do you think of Washington’s leadership against ISIS?
Gen. Jones: I think it was a mistake to not react more strongly when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad violated the red lines (set by Obama on chemical weapons use). A lot of people drew conclusions around the world that were unfortunate. I think it was a mistake to announce that the US would not put boots on the ground. You don’t telegraph what you will do and won’t do in an operational sense. That is not wise. Even if you didn’t want to put boots on the ground, to remove that possibility so publicly only reinforces the enemy’s confidence.
I think there were a couple of fairly serious foreign policy missteps and we’ve been trying to recover. Obviously, there are boots on the ground now, and perhaps not in combat but certainly there. And I believed all along that an air campaign alone is insufficient to resolve ISIS quickly.
The best you can hope for is what we’ve achieved, and then basically watching for progress until you can tackle ISIS decisively with ground activity complemented by air activity. I don’t think it’s a strategic question, but I think it needs to be dealt with tactically, and effective engagement will send the messages to different parts of the world where people are inspired by ISIS.
Rudaw: Surely the best tactic for beating ISIS in Syria is backing al-Assad?
Gen. Jones: I’m not sure, to be honest. Some things going on are somewhat encouraging. I think Turkey and the US will find common cause eventually in Syria. My vote for Syria after the red lines of using chemical weapons would’ve been to partition Syria in the north with an international force, with US and Turkish participation, and create a no-fly, no-go, no-drive zone for refugees. It would’ve helped Jordan, stemming the flow of refugees. And Assad would’ve lost a chunk of his country as a result of using weapons of mass destruction, which is a horrific crime that he’s not really been held accountable for.
I think the strategy to clean ISIS out of Iraq and at the same time think about what you want to do in Syria, they kind of go hand-in-hand. I don’t think you should stop with Iraq.
Rudaw: How do you rate the nuclear negotiations with Iran?
Gen. Jones: My experience with Iran is that, before you agree with that country you need to have ironclad verification that they’re going to live up to their promises; it would be naive of us to not have guarantees. There’s no question in my mind that Iran is at the table because these sanctions were hurting their economy. I was very proud to have been a part of creating those sanctions. I don’t think we should be supplicant to get a deal with Iran that isn’t ironclad and verifiable.
Rudaw: What did you think of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s congressional speech?
Gen. Jones: I was disappointed in the way that the invitation for the Israeli Prime Minister to address the joint session of Congress was handled. I think it was an unnecessary political slap for the president that was poorly done. I have also been extremely critical about the prime minister, particularly in 2009 and 2010 when he had an opportunity to forge ahead in the Middle East peace. He came to Washington and said one thing and went back to Israel and did completely another. From his words this week, I’m not sure that he did anything but complicate the Middle East peace process. It was a great delivery, but for anyone who knows the history and the need for a two-state solution for the good of Israel, the Palestinians and the region, this was not the finest hour.
Rudaw: Are you worried the deal leaves Iran with too much nuclear infrastructure?
Gen. Jones: In the history of proliferation, most countries who’ve acquired nuclear weapons have quickly figured out that if they used them, they would face serious retaliation. If they didn’t fear retaliation, some countries would have already perhaps used them.
I understand Israel’s concerns over its survival in the neighborhood it’s in. I get that. But I think the likelihood – and I could be wrong – of a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel is pretty small -- the US would never let that happen. It’s important that the Iranians understand that the US is resolute in protecting its friends and allies.
Rudaw: How does USKBC fit into your ideas for stabilizing the region?
Gen. Jones: I think engagement in the 21st century will be different to in the 20th century, when many international problems were resolved through military force. The Cold War was not a shooting war, but was about the balance of military power and the economic strength of one side over the other. Defeating radical fundamentalism requires a combination of three pillars: security, economic development and governance and rule of law. This mix can transform troubled parts of our planet right now.
An organization like USKBC, although small and dealing with a small but strategic area, is emblematic of a policy where, when the shooting stops and ISIS disappears, what will you do the next day? You need a plan for economic revival, the proper use of energy, shoring up the economy and educating young people about ISIS and other radical groups.
If all we do is apply military power and walk away, then we’re just creating or making more enemies than you had. At the end of the day, Iraq as one country is going to be a hell of a lot better than just a series of tribes constantly fighting each other in a never-ending conflict.