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Op-Ed Co-Author Criticizes U.S. Efforts To Defeat ISIS

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

For three years, Michele Flournoy served as President Obama's undersecretary of defense. Now she's taking on her old boss over the fight against the self-declared Islamic State. She says that fight is faltering, and without a greater effort, the president cannot contain ISIS, much less destroy it. In a Washington Post op-ed, Flournoy and a co-author laid out what she calls a more forward-leaning approach starting with Iraq.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Right now we have trainers and advisers on bases training the Iraqi forces. What we believe is that once those forces are ready to actually go into combat against ISIS, you're going to have to have some American special forces, forward air controllers, embedded in those units, helping them to be more effective in battle, helping to call in accurate airstrikes and combat air support and really, you know, helping to stiffen their backbone and have the confidence that they have the full force of the United States behind them when they finally go in and take risk.

MONTAGNE: In this opinion piece, you criticize the Obama administration's policy of, as some call it, creeping incrementalism. But the prescriptions that you've laid out might seem to a lot of Americans to be exactly sort of a mission creep. That is, once you get in with one foot, you're going to end up bringing in yourself and five people behind you.

FLOURNOY: I think that would be a mischaracterization. You know, I think that the strategy is much more likely to be effective if you fully resource it up front but stick with the strategy, that this is not a job for American combat forces to solve. This is a job for the Iraqis to solve. But we are going to provide them with every means of support they need to be successful.

MONTAGNE: Although, it turns out - and I'm turning now to Syria - that the United States, having just in the spring given a target of something like 5,400 fighters in Syria that it would train... It turns out only 60 fighters were actually in the training. So is there any hope for actually getting the fight in the hands of the people closest to it, at this point, in Syria?

FLOURNOY: Yeah, I think it's a much more difficult challenge now than it might have been a few years ago, when the notion of training and equipping the then more moderate Syrian opposition was first raised. I think the option was very viable then. I think now you have a splintering of that opposition, fewer moderate groups who can actually pass the U.S. vetting process and the uncertainty with regard to what kind of support we're willing to provide them once they reenter Syria. Will we provide them with close air support? Will we help protect their villages when they go off to fight and so forth? I mean, these are uncertainties that I think have kept a number of people from stepping forward.

MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, one of the big issues here is how big a threat is the Islamic State to the U.S. directly. And if it is a major threat, why would the U.S. leave it to proxies?

FLOURNOY: I do think it has the potential to become a major threat for a couple of reasons. One is the perception of its success has made it the new vanguard of the jihadist movement. So it's displacing al-Qaida as the new kind of cool jihad, as one of my colleagues says. So its potential to inspire lone wolves, small groups all over the world, is very real. You've had hundreds of Americans and thousands of Europeans who have been inspired to go to Syria in the Middle East, work with ISIS, and at some point will come home. So whether we are war weary, whether we really would rather not get involved in Iraq again, we have to deal with this threat. But we have to do it in a way that's smart. And that means empowering the local forces on the ground where we can find them to be effective against ISIS.

MONTAGNE: Michele Flournoy is head of the Center for a New American Security. Thank you very much for joining us.

FLOURNOY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.