Gen. David Petraeus, former U.S. force commander for Iraq and Afghanistan, said the maligned Iraqi security forces shouldn't be underestimated, despite their failure to prevent Islamic State extremists from capturing huge swaths of land.

The military failure was more a measure of "political meddling" by Baghdad, he said during a 9/11 memorial event in Denver. With a new government in place and with a strong guiding hand from U.S. military consultants, Petraeus said Iraq is well positioned to route ISIS forces from positions in Mosul and other areas they've overtaken.

He also said ISIS shouldn't be overestimated as to their abilities or the support they may have among local Sunni tribes. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the extremist group he helped defeat during the 2007 troop surge, had much deeper roots in the communities it controlled, he said, and presented a more daunting challenge that ISIS today.

"It's not the kind of 'Iraq on fire, complete desperation' we had during the surge," he said.

But he also cautioned that routing ISIS from its areas of control in Iraq wouldn't be easy and he commended President Obama for making clear during a national address Wednesday night that the effort could take years.

The difference between today's strategy in dealing with ISIS and the surge strategy of 2007, he said, is that "the Iraqis are going to do vastly more of this for themselves this time."

Describing himself as both nonpartisan and as a realist, Petraeus said he agreed with the general outlines of Obama's strategy for dealing with the terrorist threat in Iraq, calling the plan "doable." He said an equal challenge, if and when ISIS is neutralized in Iraq, will be deactivating the Shia militias that have formed to protect communities in and around Baghdad.

Former Washington Post editor Andy Alexander moderated the discussion, the highlight of a short program honoring those who died on 9/11 as well as the service members who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The event was presented by the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab and held at a packed 2,000-seat opera house in the Denver Center for Performing Arts.

At one point, Alexander asked Petraeus if he thought ISIS's brutal, videotaped beheadings of two American journalists were intended to provoke the United States into taking military action.

Petraeus said it would be "quite a calculation" for the small force to think it could successfully engage with America's military.

"If someone has a death wish, they've expressed it quite effectively," he said.

Despite a generally positive opinion of Obama's strategy for dealing with ISIS in Iraq, he said taking them on in Syria will be a "very, very different matter," one that he believes will require a ground force.

"And the FSA isn't an army," he said, referring to the moderate Free Syrian Army rebels that will be trained and equipped to fight ISIS in Syria. Instead, the group is a coalition of different units with different loyalties and goals who must be brought under the same banner for them to be an effective force.

Fighting ISIS in Syria, he said, will be "a very, very complex endeavor."

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