Iraq war veteran says ISIS may inflame passions in India, but more in Pakistan

Updated: Jul 16, 2014, 16:19 PM IST

Iraq is in tatters. Over a dozen towns have fallen to the Sunni militants and given the American hesitation to act militarily this time, Iraq is clueless about any immediate way out to blunt the lightning offensive by the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

Starting off as a non-descripit splinter group of al Qaeda, the Islamist fundamentalist group ISIS has suddenly come to acquire a monstrous form and is rushing ahead, spreading its murderous tentacles to wider swathes of Iraq.

But, despite the relentless onslaught of ISIS, the US wants to tread carefully this time and is averse to any hurried military action. Because this is not 2003 and the incumbent President Barack Obama doesn`t want to repeat the historic American mistake that George Bush made. But then, how would the war-weary US tackle the menacing rise of the ISIS, which if left uncontrolled, could snowball to become a global threat?

To get a deeper insight into the US` emerging foreign policy vis-a-vis Iraq, Supriya Jha of talked to Iraq war veteran Brian Castner, a former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer in the US Air Force.

During the interview, Mr Castner talked about his experience in the besieged country where he was deployed to command bomb disposal units in Balad and Kirkuk in 2005 and 2006.

Mr Castner is also the author of “The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows,” an Amazon Best Book of 2012.

Supriya: Recounting your memories of Iraq as a war veteran, you have written a heart-melting and engaging book `A long walk`. How would you summarise (2003-2011) Iraq war in one sentence?

Mr Castner: For most of us who fought there, a well-intentioned mistake that turned out very very badly.

Supriya: Being a bomb disposal officer, you almost battled death everyday and simultaneously saved many lives in Iraq. Still, in the book, you say, `I died in Iraq`. And many of your friends literally lost their lives. Do you think that the US intervention in 2003 was justified?

Mr Castner: This is a question I almost never ask myself, for two reasons. One, because in retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight and complete knowledge of the intentions and implications of every actor`s decisions, very few wars look justified, especially in the modern era. Of course, by this standard, the war in Iraq was not justified.

But secondly, I don`t think about this question because I don`t find it useful to explain my service or the sacrifices of my friends. Very early in the Iraq War, our reasons for staying and fighting had almost nothing to do with the reasons we invaded. I am at peace with the fact that my friends died for each other, and died because they volunteered to serve something greater than themselves. An American soldier does not choose whether to go to war, or what wars to fight, only to serve the will of their country, and my friends and I did that to the best of our ability.

Supriya: Is the current ISIS crisis in Iraq, in anyway, a result of how America acted a decade ago?

Mr Castner: Yes, but it is also the result of nearly forty years of Sunni-Shia violence between Iraq and Iran. The United States has played a part in that, but we did not create the sectarianism, and it is still unclear how much of the conflict of the last ten years is organic, how much springs from the people themselves, and how much is fomented by leaders (on both sides) who simply exploit the divide for their own gain.

Supriya: David Cameron says ISIS can attack Britain as well? Should US too remain cautious? And if yes, why shouldn`t US nip the ISIS in the bud in Iraq?

Mr Castner: Cautious yes, but for years we can have confused local insurrections for some sort of global threat. Iraqi Sunnis, Shia, Taliban and tribesmen in Afghanistan, will all attack Americans when we are in their villages or valleys, but that doesn`t mean they have the capability or desire to attack the United States at home.

Supriya: In his West Point speech, Obama said that war deaths still haunt him. How do you think, the President would chart out a safe strategy without sacrificing any more American lives on Iraqi soil?

Mr Castner: I don`t think he can.

Supriya: Is the ISIS crisis basically a result of politicization of religious Shia-Sunni conflict?

Mr Castner: My service in the Middle East taught me that any of these conflicts are usually more complicated than they first appear, with every fighter or group joining for their own reason. I`m sure some in ISIS, the leadership especially, truly want an Islamic civil war. I`m sure others are politicizing the crisis for their own gain. Others are Sunni nationalists upset at the Shiite regime in Baghdad. Others do what average citizens have always done in such circumstances, just get along, supporting whichever side is currently in power. It`s all of these things; the only question is, in what proportion?

Supriya: You know that the ISIS want a Caliphate state spanning parts across the globe. Do you see the Shia-Sunni conflict spreading worldwide slowly? Are there chances of passions getting inflamed in India also?

Mr Castner: Of course there is a chance, but al Qaeda`s influence has proven more successful in some Muslim countries more than others. In the Philippines and Indonesia, there has been a large and successful movement. So too in Africa and Pakistan, and parts of the Middle East. But the radicalization has proved less successful in some parts of South Asia and India, and the former Soviet states. I think the lesson sociology shows us is that the key indicator to watch is, what a country does with its young men. If they have economic opportunities, they take them. And if they don`t, they find an outlet for their energies in less healthy ways.

Supriya: Given that President Obama`s main focus is on political solution rather than acting militarily, won`t it give the ISIS more time to spread its tentacles wider in Iraq? Also, should we believe that the US is finally tired of wars?

Mr Castner: I don`t know what will come of ISIS, and neither does anyone else. But is the US finally tired of wars? Every time I think the answer is yes, I am proven wrong. But in the current system we have now, America can be tired of wars and yet we still fight them because we have an all-volunteer military rather separated from the citizenry at large.

Supriya: Will the latest Iraq crisis impact US decision in Afghanistan, where it`s planning withdrawal by the end of this year?

Mr Castner: I think it will cause us to ask two contradictory questions: "How ready must a government/military be to stand on its own?" and "Why put so many resources into developing new institutions in a country when at the first stress they will naturally revert to historical cultural norms?"

Supriya: “Wars don`t end just because US soldiers go home” - a very meaningful line that you have written. Do you see an end to war and return to normalcy in Iraq in the near future? Also, would you enlighten us with your perspective on what do such wars help achieve in the end? Victory, defeat, pride or guilt?

Mr Castner: All of these things and more. But the truth is, war is very personal; every veteran saw and fought their own war, and will have a different combination of those feelings based on their own experience, how much peace they were able to bring (or not), how many friends they lost (or not)...

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