General Joseph L. Votel is a retired U.S. Army Four-Star officer and most recently the Commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM)--responsible for U.S. and coalition military operations in the Middle East, Levant, and Central and South Asia. During his 39 years in the military, Votel commanded special operations and conventional military forces at every level. His career included combat in Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Notably, he led a 79-member coalition that successfully liberated Iraq and Syria from the Islamic State caliphate. He preceded his assignment at CENTCOM with service as the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
Votel is the Class of 1987 Senior Fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Belfer Center at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, MA and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations. Votel is a member of the Board of Directors for Service to School, a non-profit organization that helps military veterans transition and win admission to the Nation's best graduate and undergraduate schools. In January 2020, Votel will become the President and CEO of Business Executives for National Security (BENS). He is a 1980 graduate of the United States Military Academy and earned master's degrees from the U.S. Army Command and Staff College and the Army War College.
CTC: We wanted to start off with Syria and Iraq and to ask you to reflect on the lessons learned that you have from a military perspective on the territorial defeat of the Islamic State. What were the advantages and drawbacks of a strategy that relied heavily on Iraqi forces and SDF forces on the ground?
Votel: I think one of the things we did really well, in both Iraq and Syria, was applying the 'by, with, and through' approach. (a) I think we were able to strike the balance between the enabling activities that we needed to do for them--whether it was intelligence support, whether it was a certain amount of equipping, whether it was training, whether it was advising--I think we were able to do that without overdoing it. There'd have perhaps been great interest in the past in trying to get in and muck around with the Kurdish organizations or even the Iraqi forces and try to change them. We didn't get too far into that. We took them as they were. And we tried to leverage them and enable them from that point. And I think that helped us move quicker frankly. But there's some inherent challenges in that. They weren't as efficient as they needed to be. On the Iraqi side, you had these different pillars of security, you had Ministry of Defense, you had Ministry of Interior, you had the federal police, you had Popular Mobilization Forces. We didn't try to do something more with that. We worked with what he had. So I think that was a first key to success in this. The downside is there's some inefficiencies that come along with that.
The second piece is we tried to focus on building really strong and trustful relationships with the key leaders. One example in Iraq was Abdul Amir [Yarallah], the Army three-star [general] who became their joint force commander. We focused on making sure that he was successful, and we had really strong relationships with him at all levels--including my level and then all the way down well into the organization. Same thing across the border with [General] Mazloum [Kobani Abdi], the Syrian Democratic Force leader. I made sure we had really good relationships, trusting relationships with him. And we were very clear with both of those partners about what we would do and what we would not do. And particularly with the Kurdish part of the SDF, I made sure he understood what our redlines were, things that we weren't going to do. We were never going to go to Afrin. We were never going to do anything that would connect the cantons. If we ever saw something that looked like YPG or SDF attacks against the Turks, this would immediately be a deal breaker for us. We made these kinds of things really, really clear to him through our normal, routine interaction. And I think that developed a fairly trustful relationship in terms of them knowing what they were getting with us. Mazloum I know talked to a variety of other people; he talked to everybody. But he kept coming back to us, despite every opportunity we gave him by policy decision or things we said in the news or anything else, to walk away. He continued to come back to us because I think he viewed us as the preferred partner.
The last thing I would just say with regard to this was that in the orchestration of the campaign, we recognized there was a real urgency in the 2015-2016 timeframe to "get going, get to Mosul, come on, let's get on with this." We recognized there was a Kasserine moment (b) in the early days when the Iraqis faltered and ran away, and they had to be built back up. And so we had to take a more incremental approach to this and build confidence and build capacity and kind of set the scene for the campaign that followed. And we had to do better integration of our campaign plan with the humanitarian side and the government side. And I think we became proficient with that.
Same thing in Syria. We had a very incremental, clear way in which we were going to try to get down the Middle Euphrates Valley, and I think that worked for us. It was predictable. They understood where we were going. We knew where we were going. We were able to communicate it fairly effectively.
CTC: You were able to build these partnerships, and they proved, at the end of the day, effective in removing the Islamic State from territory both in Syria and Iraq. However, if you look at places like Raqqa, given the coalition's need to rely on air power and work through non-U.S. forces on the ground, there was clearly a significant civilian toll, especially because the Islamic State was present in population centers and using human shields. (1) Now that lessons are being drawn from this conflict, what needs to be the debate about whether more or fewer U.S. troops should have been used on the ground?
Votel: I think part of the challenge in places like this was that we didn't have a lot of people on the ground who could go in and make evaluations afterward and confirm facts and do the investigation on things like that. I take that point, but it was where we were policy-wise. So I think in the future, a lesson learned out of this is that we have to plan for that aspect of it. It should not have been a surprise to anybody that there was going to bea lot of damage in theurban areas and that there were going to be civilian casualties. This was the nature of the fight. To accomplish the mission assigned, this is what was going to have to happen. And so, we certainly have to communicate that, but we also have to highlight the risk associated with that and that there may be some things we can do better.
It was very instructive to me in the closing months of the fight in Syria, especially as we got deeper into the Middle Euphrates Valley, which was very clearly Arab territory. We were using Kurdish forces along with our Arab militias, and we actually saw local tribal elders interacting in the campaign. At first, we thought it was really frustrating, but then we began to understand it provided a mechanism for us to try to control the violence and try to minimize the opportunities for civilian casualties. So several times in Raqqa and that last fight in the Middle Euphrates Valley, when for months we said, "we're at 98 percent," this was the reason why. It was because we kept starting and stopping because of the interaction of the tribal elders, the Arab tribal elders, trying to get people out, and trying to actually negotiate with ISIS. The tribal elders said to us, "We're going to do it. We know you Americans don't want to do it, we're going to negotiate with them because we want them out of there, we want something left of our villages, we don't want to kill a bunch of people on this thing," and we supported that because that was what our partners were doing.
There's a certain amount of flak that comes along when you are told "our partners are talking to ISIS right now." I was like, "What? What are you doing?" Well, this is what had to be done. So you have to accept it. This is part of the 'by, with, and through' operational approach. When you rely on partners to do things, they're going to do it in a partner way. We're not going to like everything they do. It won't be exactly the way we'd do it, but that was the trade-off. And frankly, even as horrendous as that fight was, I think we probably saved lives allowing them to operate that way.
CTC: Many believe that far too little is being done by the international community when it comes to fostering reconciliation in Syria and Iraq. As you think it through, what are the key steps that need to be taken to better foster that political reconciliation in a place that's so difficult?
Votel: I think the key steps are there has to be a recognition that there's going to have to be some compromise and there has to be an understanding of the facts on the ground. We can say that we don't want to deal with the Assad regime because of the horrendous things they've perpetrated on their own people, but the fact is the Assad regime is in place here. To move forward we have to, I think, figure out some ways to accommodate the facts on the ground that might be very bitter pills to swallow. The same thing applies to Afghanistan. We're going to have to talk to the Taliban. If we want to achieve the President's objective in Afghanistan of reconciliation and using that as a platform to reduce our own presence and focus on our enduring interests there, there's going to have to be some compromise here. Not everybody's going to be happy with this. And so when we come in with...