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#AskTIME Subscriber Q and A: Mark Thompson

Sep 19, 2014

Welcome to TIME Subscriber Q&A, with TIME's national security correspondent, Mark Thompson. He has been monitoring the stepped-up U.S. battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as the ricochets the growing conflict has sent back to the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

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deconstructive asks: In past wars and non-war conflicts, we fought countries - North Vietnam, North Korea, Germany, came close with the USSR - but now we fight non-nation movements like ISIL and Al Qaeda. How hard do you think it is for our military to adjust to this, or do you think they are coping well?

First, let me say “hi” to some ol’ Swamplanders I recognize. Glad to join in the Q&A.

Both the U.S. military—and its leadership—as well as the American public, have struggled to put this new kind of enemy in perspective. We have fought irregular wars before, but usually the foe was some kind of nationalist—like in Vietnam. When we left, they left us alone, and ran the country, in which U.S. troops fought and died, the way they wanted to.

ISIL, ISIS—whatever you want to call them—and al Qaeda are less nationalistic and more ideological. That makes them the Energizer Bunnies of enemies—they just keep on coming at you after you’ve knocked them down. There isn't going to be a surrender ceremony on the USS Missouri, as there was with the Japanese at the end of World War II.

That’s why pledging to “destroy” or “defeat” the Islamic State isn’t smart. We have been battling al Qaeda for more than a decade, but it still isn’t defeated or destroyed. Hard to understand—given that failure, at the cost of nearly $2 trillion and 6,600 troops, whose boots were definitely on the ground—how the Obama Administration thinks it can vow to “defeat” and “destroy” ISIL when it won’t put troops on the ground.

“But we’re going to rely on the moderate Syrian rebels,” they say. We spent tens of billions training and outfitting organized armies in Afghanistan and Iraq with mixed results. The notion that we’re going to be able to do in Syria, with rebels who can’t get along and who would rather fight Bashar Assad than ISIS, what we’ve been unable to do in either Afghanistan and Iraq seems dubious.

The U.S. military can only do so much against these kinds of foes. And whatever it does treats only the symptoms, not the cause. So long as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and similar trouble spots are governed—or not—by corrupt, partisan leaders who exclude many of their citizens, they will continue to be Petri dishes for trouble.

DonQuixotic asks: Mark, our armed forces have effectively been engaged in one form of conflict or another for over a decade now. As we see our troops suffer more and more from the effects of PTSD and Battle Fatigue, are we effectively creating a generation of war-torn troops that will (or perhaps already do) eclipse the likes of even Vietnam? Is there anything more we can do to help these soldiers more than we're already doing? Things we can do that we're not doing?

This nation always underestimates the cost of its wars, both in terms of blood and treasure (1991’s Gulf War was the exception that proved the rule, although many who fought it and are suffering from what is known as Gulf War Syndrome would disagree).

Before they began, Pentagon officials envisioned both Afghanistan and Iraq as six-month conflicts. Once they launched and stretched into years, no one had the guts to declare that we needed a bigger military so that we wouldn’t have to keep sending the same troops back to fight, time after time. There wasn’t the political nerve to boost the size of the Army substantially.

In Vietnam, most troops pulled a single 13-month tour. When that was over, they were finished with fighting. So while they experienced the horrors of war, they didn’t keep seeing the same movie over and over again. Unfortunately, many troops fighting in the post-9/11 wars have returned to the battlefield repeatedly, which boosts their chances of both physical and mental wounds.

So the first thing the nation should have done is boosted the size of the military significantly. If they had, we might not have needed to triple the VA budget since 9/11 to tend to all our ailing vets.

Here’s an interesting fact from a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday:

“The cumulative number of post-9/11 veterans who were wounded in action was 1.3 million in 2012—nearly triple the 482,000 post-9/11 veterans who were wounded in action before 9/11.”

In other words, the nation had nearly 500,000 wounded vets from World War II, Korea and Vietnam on September 11, 2001. Since then, 1.3 million more have been added to the VA’s rolls. That’s due in large part to vastly improved medical care. But it also means that much of war’s cost happens years after the last round has been fired on the battlefield as the nation provides these troops with the medical care they earned.

Roughly 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam, almost as many as have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Think it is fair to believe the post-war problems of both sets of vets will be pretty similar.

There are dozens of places for interested Americans to volunteer to help veterans, ranging from Give an Hour for mental-health professionals to the VA itself for the rest of us.

Nflfoghorn1 asks: How close do you think we are to identifying and drone-striking ISIS targets in Syria?

This is more of a political than military challenge. The U.S. military could begin hitting targets in Syria tomorrow if it got the order to do so.

It doesn’t take much to send unmanned Predators and Reapers into Syrian airspace to target confirmed ISIS convoys.

Clearly, Washington would like to have some named allies in place before it begins hitting targets in largely desolate eastern Syria, which is where ISIS is most active. And now that President Obama has said Syria will not be a sanctuary for ISIS fighters, the military is swinging its ISR—intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—assets over Assad’s neighborhood to draft even more precise target lists.

But the Pentagon has initial target sets ready to go. All they need now is a green light from the commander-in-chief. Once given, that could lead to U.S. strikes in Syria within days.

PaulDirks21 asks: The last estimates of ISIS strength I've seen is 30,000. What i haven't seen anywhere is a force estimate of the alleged 'Moderate Syrians" that we are about to be shipping armaments to. Do you have an estimate of how many there are and an opinion as to whether those arms aren't going to end up ISIS's arsenal before they're even out of the box?

The reason you haven’t seen such numbers is that there is no accurate headcount of Syrian moderates. One estimate suggests there are 100,000 rebels belonging to 1,000 militias opposed to Assad.

But as many of them have probably ended up in the Free Syrian Army, the chief moderate group, as have ended up in ISIS. Separating the good guys from the bad before we train the first batch of 5,000 in the first year of training is going to be a real challenge.

Given our inability to craft good fighting forces in Afghanistan and Iraq despite years of effort and billions of dollars, it’s hard to see how it can be done with rebels. This is the weakest link in Obama’s plan and is likely to mean that some small number of U.S. troops, or perhaps intelligence operatives, will have to be dispatched onto Syria soil to help guided air strikes.

Sue_N asks: Mark, over the past several years we've heard much about the "war-weary" American people. Yet now polls are showing more than 60 percent support for this latest war against ISIS (or ISIL or Daesh or…), even though, frankly, ISIS poses no existential threat to the US. Isn't it more accurate to speak of a "war-bored" American public? Are we as much "weary" of war as just tired of the old one and looking for a new one? A new and shinier war that, maybe, we can win?

The U.S. public is terribly fickle. Their support for military action is always highest on the first day of such action, and then it slowly melts away as the conflict drags on. I don’t sense an appetite in the country to wage “a new and shinier war.”

The problem, fundamentally, is how the nation wages its wars. These are major commitments, and should require a declaration of war by the Congress. Former defense Secretary Robert Gates told me earlier this year that the U.S. “probably” should have declared war on Iraq before invading in 2003.

Lawmakers are all too willing to talk about war, but not declare it. Citizens should demand the President seek a declaration from Congress, and that Congress votes on it.

Otherwise, we are doomed to sending our best and brightest off to fight and die in inconclusive wars.

yogi asks: MT, Are the recent events with ISIS causing the military and government to change their plans in leaving Afghanistan? Will this cause a residual force to be left there after 2016?

Too soon to tell. Things remain a mess in Afghanistan, although we may get clarity about its post-Karzai president soon. The trouble is that things are not getting better in Afghanistan. The Taliban continue to make advances. On Tuesday, a pair of Americans—a soldier and a contractor—were killed by a car bomb just outside the U.S. embassy in the heart of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

America has a malignant case of war weariness in Afghanistan. That will only abate if the residual force left there at the end of this year through 2016 somehow ends up witnessing a turnaround that makes their continued presence warranted.

This sense of war burnout was on my mind Friday morning when I had breakfast, along with other reporters, with General Ray Odierno, the Army’s top officer. I reminded the chief of staff how optimistic he seemed when I saw him in Kirkuk, Iraq, in December 2003, telling Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld how things were looking up in his area of operation.

His 4th Infantry Division was detecting more roadside bombs earlier, and he felt good about their hunt for fugitive Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who was believed to be in hiding somewhere in the region.

A week later they caught him in Tikrit.

I suggested to Odierno that may have been his personal high point in the nation’s post-9/11 wars. Eight months later, an RPG took off his son Tony’s arm in Baghdad, and killed the driver sitting next to him. I noted that our breakfast had been delayed by a month, because Odierno had to attend the memorial service for Major General Harry Greene, who had been killed, in an insider attack, by an Afghan soldier.

Given that come Oct. 7 the nation will have been at nonstop war for 13 years, I asked him—“as a soldier, a commander and a father”— if it has been worth it.

“That’s a very difficult question,” Odierno began. “The bottom line on all of this is, as I think my way through this, is that first, as a soldier, what we do is we try to provide the capability to try to provide security for the nation. And we try to conduct the missions we’re given. As we’ve worked our way through this, one of the lessons I’ve learned is that military power is not the solution to everything—it’s got to be a combination of many other things—military, economic, political, diplomatic, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

“I would even argue in my area of operation in 2003—the violence was down, we had just captured the leader, things were looking pretty good—but there was an under-estimation of the societal devastation that had happened inside Iraq.

“The bottom line is that the Middle East is all inter-connected and it is going to cause problems and we have to stay involved in it. I don’t know what the end state is going to be yet.

“What I do know is its terrorist groups are very threatening to both the United States and Europe. I brought some of our leaders up to New York to the 9/11 museum—I suggest everyone go, by the way, I suggest every American go to this 9/11 museum—and it was eerie listening to what was being said in 1991, ’92, ’93, ’94 by Osama bin Laden. It sounds very similar to what we’re hearing out of the Islamic State in the Levant today.

“So we have to realize that this is a long-term threat that takes a long-term commitment. And if we don’t believe they want to attack the West and America, you’re kidding yourself…We have to make a decision on whether we are going to be pro-active in doing this, or are we going to wait until it’s too late.

“So what’s helped me through all this is I believe we are attempting to be pro-active and to protect this country and the freedoms that we have. And I don’t want to sound Pollyannish, but I truly believe that.

“I think we have to continue to do this, although things have not gone the way I thought they would go. Things are not as smooth as I thought they would be. There’s been personal sacrifice, but not just by my family, but thousands of families in this country. I think we have to remember that there is, I believe, a threat to this country.”

So, I asked again, has it been worth it?

“I think it’s yet to be determined,” Odierno said. “I think this is going to be a long endeavor, and I think we have to let history decide that. I’m not willing to comment on that yet.”

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