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Iraq's Army Stumbles Because U.S. Left Too Quickly, Analyst Says


Let's go to news, now, from Iraq. As we've been reporting, that nation's army melted away in the face of Sunni militants moving toward Baghdad. The army's collapse in northern Iraq has revived a debate in Washington, D.C. about what the U.S. should or should not do to support the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. One of those who argues for a much more forceful American response is Vali Nasr. He's Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and he served in the State Department in President Obama's first term. And he joins us now. Good morning.

VALI NASR: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Well, I'd like to begin with something I think many Americans are wondering, which is how, after battles fought by American troops for years and billions invested in building up security and infrastructure and the military in Iraq - why do you think this happened?

NASR: I think it happened because we left Iraq too quickly. The country was completely shattered. We helped broker a political deal to put a government together, and we started building security forces. But these institutions were too fragile, and we left too quickly. If you were to compare with the time we spent in Bosnia or in Europe after the war to give time for new institutions to grow, we didn't give that to a Iraq, and as soon as we left, things began to unravel.

MONTAGNE: Well, unraveling, you know, on a massive and very speedy scale, here, it seems. I mean, one of the most lasting images from this last couple of days has been these militants literally bulldozing the border between Iraq and Syria. So, I mean, this suggests a conflict becoming quite regional.

NASR: Well, it has been for some time. There has been no border, really, between Syria and Iraq. And that - the fact that there's a lot of open space in Syria for this particular extremist group to gather recruits, train them, build capacity and then be able to move south of the border is what has allowed this last round of attack on the Iraq government that we are witnessing. And on the other hand, I think we have over overstated the preparedness of the Iraqi military as an excuse to be able to say, it's time to leave Iraq. In reality, this military was never really ready for standing up to this kind of a challenge.

MONTAGNE: Well, here we are, then. And you have some knowledge and a strong opinion about what the U.S. should do now. But let me just say first, the Maliki government has been favoring the country's Shiite majority, making the situation far worse there. What could be done, you know, to - in the light of this government controlling this country?

NASR: Well, I think we should put things in perspective. Maliki's sectarianism and his favoring the Shiites and not including the Sunnis, is only part of the problem. We're not witnessing a Sunni rebellion by the average citizen in Iraq. We're seeing an assault on the state by an organized extremist group that may be taking advantage of the unhappiness of the Sunnis. But I think it's a movement unto itself with its own agenda. And I think for the United States, this is not about helping Iraq deal with extremism. It's helping the United States' own interests by denying an extremist group, that ultimately would be a threat to the United States and the United States' other allies in the region, from being able to control vast amounts of territory across the borders of two of Middle East's most important countries.

MONTAGNE: Well, the Obama administration has resisted and seems to be - will continue to resist military aid. But what, in that area, do you think should be or could be done?

NASR: Well, in the two other cases we've witnessed this kind of an extremist attack on the state, which is the Taliban attack on Afghanistan in the 1990s and the extremists' attack on the government in Mali after the Arab Spring last year - in both cases, it took outside forces, the United States and the French, to dislodge them. The Iraqi military will not be able to do that, and the only other government in the region that might have that capability and willingness is Iran. But barring that, it really requires an international intervention. Not just by the United States, but also by NATO and European powers to protect their own interests in the Middle East.

MONTAGNE: Or else, what?

NASR: Or else you could have this extremist group, ISIS, control large parts of Iraq, be able to build terrorist capabilities that could ultimately threaten the West, but also threaten other countries in the region, from Turkey and Jordan, but also across the gulf. And ultimately, if Iraq were to fall apart completely, it would be a foreign policy defeat for the United States, and it would also create a security threat for the United States.

MONTAGNE: Vali Nasr, thank you very much for joining us.

NASR: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Vali Nasr is Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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