DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. Now, it does not appear that these military strikes killed any of the 5,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq. They are there leading the coalition that is fighting ISIS, though that fight right now is on hold as the U.S. deals with the strikes and any potential coming conflict with Iran. Earlier, we spoke to Brett McGurk to learn more about what the future fight against ISIS looks like amid this heightened tension between the United States and Iran. McGurk was, until last year, the U.S. special envoy for countering ISIS. And I started by asking him how significant this morning's attacks were.
BRETT MCGURK: Well, when I first heard the news - 'cause I know Iranian ballistic missile capabilities, they can be somewhat precise. You know, they attacked a Kurdish separatist group called KDPI about a year and a half ago with extreme precision - actually hit the room a number of leaders were in. It's a major escalation - the first time Iran is really taking credit for a kind of military attack against us. That said, as the dust has settled, it appears from reports that are emerging, first, there's no casualties among Americans or Iraqis, which is extremely welcome news - my real concern was for our citizens who are under fire - and, second, that the Iranians notified the Iraqi prime minister that these attacks were coming, who in turn notified us. And I think we'll have to see as we do the forensics of whether they purposely tried to not target areas in which we would have had people. So there is a sense here that possibly this was a symbolic attack and offers both sides now an off ramp. I would just add, though, I think that's a little bit naive. I think this might be the end of Iranian-sponsored direct military attacks, but their MO is to act through proxy. So, you know, all the provocations we've seen since May of last year, which has led to the American troop deployments, the attacks against Gulf shipping, the attacks against Aramco in Saudi Arabia, Iran is not taking credit for any of those attacks.
GREENE: So you're saying this could be the official response from the government itself and maybe this could send a signal to some of their proxies and that might get much more unpredictable.
MCGURK: Soleimani did have real discipline over this group. So his removal from the scene, while I think is a net positive but also does increase the risk of some of them acting on their own, acting with less discipline and sparking something that could get out of hand. So this is a moment here to take a deep breath and think through things. I also think it's important to think through just where we're heading with Iran. I mean, since May, we've now sent almost 20,000 American military personnel to the region. There's no sign that Iran is willing to come back to the table on our terms. And I think it's a time to think about do we want to get sucked in here even further when the national security strategy of President Trump - this is why he's really pursuing irreconcilable objectives. The national security strategy is to decrease our commitments in the Middle East and refocus and reposture towards Asia and China.
GREENE: You say decreasing the American presence. I mean, if that included actually withdrawing American forces who are in Iraq to fight ISIS - I mean, this is your area of expertise - what could the implications of that be? I mean, could ISIS be much more free to operate in Iraq?
MCGURK: In Iraq right now, we have about 5,000 American troops together with a coalition of about 20 countries are with us - NATO, France, New Zealand, Australia. They have another 5,000 to 6,000. Our presence provides influence and long-term balance against Iran. It's a long-term proposition. But were we to suddenly leave, the vacuum would really just open up. I think the Iraqi security forces who continue to need our support for logistics and intelligence and some other things, they would need another patron. And I think Vladimir Putin would be on the steps of Baghdad immediately offering Russia. And I would see Russian flags coming up in the facilities that we now have. I think that would be a real - very realistic outcome and almost an irrecoverable step back.
GREENE: Well, how crucial is the United States specifically in the fight against ISIS? I mean, you mentioned a country like Russia filling the void. Russia, obviously, has an incentive to wipe out ISIS. So, I mean, if we reached a point where the United States was leaving, I mean, do you foresee ISIS operating freely in the country? Or do you see them still, you know, facing quite an enemy?
MCGURK: Well, it wasn't very long ago you used to see 50, 60 car bombs, suicide bombs, a month in Iraq, and ISIS wants to reconstitute those networks. And as they do, that's how they carve out a safe space and then begin to target the West again. We are extremely, extremely effective. Since 2014, we have trained Iraqi security forces and their counterterrorism service forces. They're some of the most battle-tested, most effective forces in the region. They're aligned very closely with us. We're helping them with operations to make sure that these networks cannot reconstitute. We're doing it at a very low risk to ourselves. We're not fighting. We're not taking casualties. We're not spending much money. It's a very, I think, smart, sustainable presence. And without us, I think it'd be very difficult to keep the pressure on those networks. And Russia really cannot take our place effectively.
GREENE: Brett McGurk - he was the U.S. special envoy for countering ISIS. Thanks so much for your time, as always.
MCGURK: David, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.