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Mosul Falls And Many Wonder: What Happened To Troop Surge In Iraq?


Lieutenant General Mark Hertling was the top U.S. commander for northern Iraq during the surge of U.S. troops there from 2007 to 2009. He commanded an area that includes the key city of Mosul and Tikrit, which have both now fallen to the extremists. Hertling has since retired from the Army and he joins me now. Gen. Hertling, welcome to the program.


BLOCK: We've learned that these cities fell to ISIS insurgents extremely quickly and the accounts are that the Iraqi army collapsed. Soldiers abandoned their posts, handed over weapons and uniforms. This is the Iraqi army that your troops trained and that you handed over authority to. So what does that tell you about what happened?

HERTLING: Well, looking right now at what ISIS is doing, but I think it may come out very soon that there are a conglomeration of forces contributing to this situation, to include a variety of tribal areas and tribal clans as well as former regime members - the Ba'athists, as they like to be called - the military members who live and work in that area, I think, have probably had enough of this government.

BLOCK: So you're blaming the central Iraqi government for a dissolution of authority and command?

HERTLING: Well, I think it's a combination of things. And I hate to go philosophical but I think Carl Clausewitz once said that security is provided or war is executed by a combination and a leavening of the military forces, the government and the will of the people. When you have unequal parts of those, and we certainly have a disillusionment by the Iraqi people on what their security is providing to them. We also have a government that is focused primarily on the gaining of power and you have a military that has been fighting now for five years. So you can see that this has been fractured over the last several years between the time when we were still there and now.

BLOCK: And what does this tell you? What does this say about Iraqi troop's loyalties to their commanders?

HERTLING: You have to, first of all, look at their commanders to include their commander-in-chief, Prime Minister Maliki. He has been the one who has said he's in charge of the military. Some of the military commanders in Baghdad can be considered cronies of his. Some of the telling things that have been occurring in the last few days is the shedding of uniforms and the turning over of the weapons. And indicators, at least early on from the press, that there weren't many shots fired. That tells me that there is either the potential for plotting against the central government, a potential coup, or a potential takeover by a combination of forces that might include ISIS - the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, along with other forces.

BLOCK: General Hertling, there are a lot of U.S. weapons that are now in the hands of ISIS fighters - both in Iraq and across the border into Syria. Did you anticipate that that would happen when U.S. troops pulled out in 2011?

HERTLING: No. I never really saw the potential for it to flow over into insurgents or extremist hands.

BLOCK: Well, how do you explain that there was that much of a miscalculation? If that's what it was?

HERTLING: Because it's conflict and it's warfare. And it's a very complex insurgency. And when you have that disconnect between the government, the people and the military, which we saw seeds of, anything can happen. We didn't also anticipate things like the Arab Spring or the revolt in Syria against the Assad regime. So all of these things, I think, coming together are significant turmoil in the area, certainly, but you never know what's going to happen next.

BLOCK: General Hertling, you commanded U.S. soldiers who died in these cities that have now fallen to insurgents. I'm curious to hear your perspective as you think about that and as you see this country falling apart.

HERTLING: During the time when I was in northern Iraq, our task force lost 123 soldiers and I think about them every day. I have pictures of them in a box on my desk. And this is saddening to me to watch the potential of a country that we had given an opportunity to become more of a representative society. But as we said in the waning years, they have to want it more than we do. And unfortunately, I think in the last couple of years, we were wanting it more than them. And we are now seeing the consequences of that.

BLOCK: General Hertling, thanks for talking with us.

HERTLING: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Lieutenant General Mark Hertling was the top U.S. commander for northern Iraq during the surge from 2007 to 2009. He is now retired from the military.

BLOCK: And our apologies for that technical glitch. That interview with General Hertling recorded earlier today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.