Can the U.S. Use al Qaeda Fighters to Defeat ISIS? David Petraeus Has a Plan

Sep 1 2015

Retired U.S. Army general and former Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus is publicly floating a new and somewhat surprising proposal for combating the terrorist group ISIS in the Middle East. The architect of the “surge” in Iraq that helped defeat al Qaeda in that country nearly a decade ago is now suggesting that some al Qaeda-affiliated fighters might be persuaded to turn their guns on the Islamic State.

The idea is not necessarily as far-fetched as it sounds. In Iraq, part of Petraeus’s success was built on helping to engineer a shift in loyalties among Sunni Muslim militias that, in many cases, had been fighting against the U.S. and Iraqi government.

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The so-called “Sunni awakening,” in which many former foes of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government made common cause with that government against al Qaeda in Iraq, was a major contributor to its eventual defeat.

What Petraeus is suggesting, according to a statement supplied to CNN on Tuesday, is that disaffected members of the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front could be persuaded to make a similar shift in loyalty and form another arm of opposition to ISIS.

A decade ago in Iraq, Sunni fighters were persuaded to join with the Iraqi government out of self-interest. The U.S. backing for the government was strong and showed no sign of waning, and a major troop increase – the surge – made al Qaeda’s position look less and less tenable.

A similar dynamic might be at play with members of the al Nusra front, Petraeus suggests.

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“[S]ome individual fighters, and perhaps some elements, within Nusra today have undoubtedly joined for opportunistic rather than ideological reasons: they saw Nusra as a strong horse, and they haven't seen a credible alternative, as the moderate opposition has yet to be adequately resourced,” he said, according to CNN.

Petraeus’s comments are tempered with the admission that it would be politically difficult, at best, for the U.S. to be seen joining hands with al Qaeda-affiliated fighters. While many of the Sunnis who switched sides in the Sunni awakening had American blood on their hands, they could at least be said to have been fighting against what they viewed as an invading army. Members of al Qaeda, however, will forever be associated with the 9/11 attacks and innumerable other acts of terrorism against the U.S. and its allies.

What Petraeus is suggesting is the sort of Realpolitik approach to dealing with ISIS that many lawmakers in Washington have resisted when it comes to foreign policy – for example with regard to the nuclear deal with Iran and the administration’s decision not to intervene directly in the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

The CNN account builds on and seems to clarify a story that appeared in the Daily Beast on Monday night. Relying on sources close to Petraeus but not the retired general himself, it seemed to suggest that Petraeus might have been advocating the wholesale co-opting of al Nusra rather than just disaffected individuals and units.

Petraeus, the most celebrated general of his generation, stepped down from his position as head of the CIA after it was revealed that he had had an affair with his biographer and that he had improperly shared classified information with her. He is now a partner with the New York investment firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and is a non-resident fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

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