Interview of General Allen With Elise Labott of CNN

General John Allen, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
Washington, DC
October 1, 2014

QUESTION: General Allen, thank you so much for joining CNN. You’ve been appointed as the envoy to this anti-ISIS global coalition. You’re headed out to the region. Tell us where you’ll be going and what the goals are.

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, first, Elise, let me congratulate you on your assignment as CNN global correspondent. Well done --

QUESTION: Thank you. That’s not in the time. (Laughter.)

GENERAL ALLEN: Well done to you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

GENERAL ALLEN: We’re going to go out to the region, and this is the first of several trips. We’re going to have – we’ll travel extensively throughout the month. And the intent is to continue the process of what’s happening with the coalition now, which is the consolidation of the membership that is beginning to come together, to provide clarity on what we think the lines of effort are going to be and to ensure that the members of the coalition understand what those are, and then seek to place the coalition’s unique capabilities within those lines of effort.

And let me just take a moment and talk about those, because it’s important. At the moment, the conspicuous aspect of the coalition seems to be the military piece. And what’s important to understand is that there are several other lines as well. It’s the line that represses the flow of foreign fighters; it’s the line that deals with disrupting the revenue generation capabilities and the criminal, illicit activities of ISIL; it’s the important line of developing the humanitarian capacity to provide for the populations, ultimately, as ISIL is diminished and defeated; and very importantly, it’s the line that creates the de-legitimization of ISIL as a group and the idea of ISIL across the region.

And so we’re going to have that conversation broadly across the region with partners and potential partners, the idea being to ensure that we provide clarity.

QUESTION: Well, this is an anti-ISIS coalition, but is there agreement on what the goals are and what they’re all for? Because a lot of these countries in the region have converging views, competing priorities. I mean, this is a real motley crew of countries who don’t always agree.

GENERAL ALLEN: That’s true. But I think the point of agreement that has emerged is that ISIL and the idea of ISIL is a real threat across the region. And this is an opportunity – it’s actually an important moment where so many countries from so many different backgrounds share that view, that this is an opportunity to create partnership across those lines of effort that can achieve real effect. And I’ll just take a second and say that in my previous life where I commanded a 50-nation coalition in the Afghan context, the International Security Assistance Force, while Afghanistan was the outcome of that coalition, in ways we may not understand for years the commonality of views and purposes and the habits of cooperation and relationships – we’re going to harvest that for many, many years. I think this coalition gives us that opportunity as well.

QUESTION: What does it mean to degrade and defeat, destroy ISIS? I mean, what is the definition of success here?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, those are military terms and they tend to have a military context to them. ISIS really operates in about three spheres. It operates in the physical sphere, which is obvious; the surface area where ISIS is operating on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the foreign fighters that are moving to and from the ISIS entity. It operates in the information sphere, where it propagates its message and terrorizes the population by working in the information sphere. It also operates in the financial sphere. And so while in the physical sense degrading is an attack of the ISIL network, and degrading and dismantling is taking apart the physical structure of the network, we intend through those five lines of operations to compete with and ultimately contest and defeat ISIS in those three spheres. So that we dismantle ISIS in a credible physical way in the physical sphere, we compete with them in the information sphere and ultimately deny them the credibility of their message and the legitimacy of their movement, and we also deny them the oxygen that comes from their illicit finance and revenue activities.

QUESTION: You – what is it – you wrote about a month ago that the Kurds and the Sunnis and the free resistance army are the “boots on the ground.” I mean, how much of a defeat are you going to be able to deliver to these guys so that these people can be the boots on the ground? I mean, isn’t it a foregone conclusion you’re going to need more countries to put boots on the ground?

GENERAL ALLEN: No, it’s not a foregone conclusion. And I think right now, as we begin to put the coalition together, the intent with respect to Iraq is to use U.S. and coalition forces in a very important way to train the existing Iraqi Security Forces. And we discovered in the assessment that we did of the Iraqi Security Forces that over half of them still have some substantial capability. So to train them, to equip them, to advise them, to be involved in partner – the building of partner capacity and force generation so that the capacity then to be the maneuver force to ultimately achieve the decision on the ground is achieved by Iraqi forces.

Now, it’s different in Syria because the Syrian opposition is going to take some time. The recent legislation that was passed by the Congress permits us the capability of moving forward with a train and equip program for the Iraqi – or, excuse me, the Syrian opposition forces, which will take time, as your question implies. But that’s part of the strategy. That’s part of our vision on how this will unfold. Iraq will resolve itself first; but at the same time, we’re going to be working closely with the Free Syrian and Iraqi and Syrian opposition elements to build capacity there as well.

QUESTION: What if that isn’t enough in the short term, though? I mean, as a former general, you don’t lose your stripes and bars. I mean, would you ever advise the President to take boots off the – U.S. boots on the ground off the table?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I’m not going to dodge the question. I’ll leave that for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But I have extensive experience in training indigenous forces. And with the right kind of training infrastructure and the right kind of forces that we’re working with, I think there’s a very good chance that the Iraqi Security Forces can be the adequate – the term is not a good term, boots on the ground – could be the adequate arm of decision ultimately to decide the outcome with ISIS on the ground in Iraq.

QUESTION: Well, but particularly in Syria, President Obama said a few months ago it was “a fantasy” to expect that you could train these Free Syrian Army guys to combat Assad. Now you have this brutal ISIS army that you also want them to tackle. I mean, how are they going to do that in the short term?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, in the short term, we’ll continue to support them in their ongoing operations. But over the long term, the intent is to build credible forces, vetted forces, credible forces with --

QUESTION: It’s going to take a while.

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, it is, yes, and we’ve been saying that all along. It is going to take a while. It could take years, actually. And so we have to manage our expectations. But the process of getting that unfolded is occurring right now with the idea of locating training camps and beginning to accumulate the Syrian elements that will go into those training camps, ensuring that we’ve got the right kind of combination of trainers who can provide the substance that they’re going to need to be credible and capable fighters on the ground as time goes on.

QUESTION: But in the short term, it doesn’t sound as if getting rid of President Assad is either (a) the priority or (b) wise if you’re going to take a while. As you said, it could take years. In the short term, it seems as if President Assad is the least bad option.

GENERAL ALLEN: No, President Assad is not an option for us. Our policy is very clear in that there should be, in the end in Syria --

QUESTION: In the end?

GENERAL ALLEN: -- a political outcome, a political outcome. And I can’t foresee that date on the calendar today when the end will be. But a political outcome will occur, and President Assad won’t be part of it, frankly. But getting there – an important waypoint in getting there is to prepare the Free Syrian or moderate Syrian opposition elements to be both credible politically and credible militarily so that they are a shaping force in the political outcome overall.

QUESTION: But it seems as if Syria does have a role here, and a couple years ago, they were talking about a concern about Syrian air defenses. Yet last week, U.S. planes, coalition planes were in the skies of Syria – not a shot fired. It seems as if there’s more coordination with the Syrians than the U.S. is letting on.

GENERAL ALLEN: No, we’re not coordinating with the Syrians.

QUESTION: So they just decided to --

GENERAL ALLEN: It’s a pretty wise act on their part not to come up and challenge the air capabilities of the United States and our allies.

QUESTION: The Pentagon admitted you’re not coordinating with the Free Syrian Army either, so wouldn’t that be kind of prudent at this point?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think we’ll see that that will change over time.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry said at the UN that there’s a role for every country to play, including Iran. What is Iran’s role here?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, Iran is threatened by ISIL as well. And we’re not going to coordinate with Iran. We’re not going to contemplate a bilateral coalition with Iran. But Iran has deep interests and relationships in Iraq, and ISIL is a threat to Iran’s interests as well. And Iran can be a constructive influence in this process.


GENERAL ALLEN: By providing support to the Iraqi population ultimately as that population is uncovered by security forces; by creating an opportunity for the new Abadi government to be a government of all Iraqis – not just of Shia Iraqis, not ultimately of Sunni or Kurdish Iraqis, but all Iraqis. And I think that we have seen that as the page has turned in the recent history of Iraq from the previous regime to the Abadi regime, a regime which seems very clearly to be acceptable in Tehran, that we have an opportunity here for a visible confluence of interests that a stable, constructive government --

QUESTION: Why not just coordinate with the Iranians? I mean, obviously, you have similar goals. I mean, why not lay out the redlines and cooperate together?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, that’s a decision ultimately that will have to be made elsewhere. We do have an ongoing dialogue with the Iranians in the context of the nuclear portfolio. But for now --

QUESTION: It seems like you can’t ignore them. I mean, considerable influence in Iraq, considerable influence in Syria, a common threat – it seems like a no-brainer.

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I think that we recognize that they have a role to play, and where that role is helpful, we’ll encourage it.

QUESTION: The first strikes in Syria not only against ISIS targets but up against this Khorasan Group that is a threat to the U.S. --


QUESTION: -- and to Europe. Why are our European allies not taking part in these strikes against Syria?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, you’d have to ask them. This was --

QUESTION: But don’t you think they should be there with us?

GENERAL ALLEN: Again, that’s an individual decision that has to be made in those capitals, and we’re not going to challenge that. In this case, we went after the Khorasan elements because they were judged by us to be a threat to the U.S. homeland, so we exercised our right of self-defense and struck them on the first night.

QUESTION: But if Europe is in this coalition, I mean, do we all share the same goals?

GENERAL ALLEN: I believe we do. But again, each --


GENERAL ALLEN: Well, Syria is a different issue for many of them. They certainly understand Iraq, and they certainly understand reestablishing the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Iraq. And I believe that the conversation with respect to Syria will be ongoing between us and our coalition partners, but it’s not a conversation that’s ended. This coalition is just coming together. This coalition is just beginning to integrate its capabilities into the broader strategy, of which Syria is a part. So we should expect that there’s going to be an ongoing conversation in that regard.

QUESTION: Let me ask about Turkey, because few countries are affected the way Turkey is. And now that those hostages are freed, do you feel they would be the first people raising their hands? Why has this been such a hard sell?

GENERAL DEMPSEY: Well, first of all, let me just tell you how pleased we are to have seen the Turks recover their diplomats and their families. That was a wonderful moment for that country. And I think in a – in this respect, it has given the Turks the ability to have the internal conversation that they have to have about what role they will play. They have been very clear that they’re very interested in having a role in the coalition. They’re working through that now within their own government. I look forward to being in Ankara in the very near future to have that conversation with the Turkish leadership.

QUESTION: Incirlik Air Base, are you hoping to get --

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, we’ve talked about that with them, but again, let’s let them make the decision and come back to us. It’s part of the conversation right now.

QUESTION: You led the Anbar Awakening, and you saw that those tribes kind of followed the U.S. – there were a lot of contracts, a lot of money going back and forth. With ISIS paying $1,000 a day, providing opportunities for these people, how do you combat what ISIS is willing to give them right now?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, every tribe is different. You can’t say that all tribes are the same. You can’t say that the motivation for any particular tribe with respect to ISIS is going to be the same either. Some tribes helped ISIS. Some tribes stood by as ISIS went by. Some tribes got run right over by ISIS, even though they opposed them. And some are still fighting them to this day. So each tribe is different.

The one thing I know for sure is, just as I learned by watching al-Qaida work on the ground in Al Anbar in ’07, is that there will come the time when ISIS cannot tolerate the tribal structure within ISIS’s territory, because that tribal structure is in direct opposition to the full exertion of ISIS influence over the population. And ISIS will turn on the tribes. As sure soon as the sun will come up tomorrow – sure as that is, that’s going to happen. And so the tribes recognize this in a very real way. And I think within their own capabilities, we’re already seeing tribes that are rising up against ISIS. We’re already seeing tribes that are coordinating with other elements within the Iraqi Secretary Forces to achieve effect against ISIS, and there are tribes out there ready to go.

And in the larger construct in Iraq, for example, of the refurbishment and the renovation of the Iraqi Security Forces, the emergence of these National Guard units, which are going to be stood up and trained and --

QUESTION: We’ve done all this before, though. We trained up the Iraqi army. I mean, how do you know that that’s not going to happen again?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I think the difference now is that the National Guard is coming – the National Guard is coming, the Iraqi Security Forces are being specifically focused on the ISIS as a threat, and that the tribes will be motivated to work. And I think this layered approach, with the right kind of training and assistance and partnership, capacity building, and force generation, I think we’ve got a very good formula here.

QUESTION: You saw what happened in Afghanistan. You were in Iraq. Remember when you went into Iraq in 2003, Secretary Powell had this – what’s now known as the Powell Doctrine: you broke it, you bought it. Are we responsible for what happens next? We went into Afghanistan in the ‘80s and we created, many people think, Usama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network that came. I mean, are we responsible for what happens next in Iraq? And what’s our endgame there?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, let’s talk about Afghanistan for just a second. We’ve just seen --

QUESTION: But are we – know that we – do we know that we’re not – by training these people, particularly in Syria but also in Iraq with these Sunni tribes, are we creating another al-Qaida?

GENERAL ALLEN: In what sense, Elise?

QUESTION: We’re training this Free Syrian Army right now. How do we --

GENERAL ALLEN: And training it ultimately to become an al-Qaida-like organization?

QUESTION: How do we know that?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I think with the process of vetting, how we know them. We have gotten to know them very well. We understand the values that they stand for, their long-term political objectives. They’re very different than Jabhat al-Nusrah. They’re very different than ISIS. They’re very different than some of the other elements that are on the ground, and they are worthy of our support.

Now, when – as we go about the process of training formations of the Free Syrian opposition, we’ll go through the vetting process, and we’ve done that in other places as well. So that’s not an unknown process for us. But it’s very important, I think, that we understand that that organization – Free Syrian elements – from its political elements all the way through to the ground force elements needs our support, it needs our training, it needs our capacity building. It needs to become the credible, strengthened entity in the Syrian battlespace that has to be reckoned with eventually in the political outcome. And that’s the long-term objective of this strategy.

QUESTION: Just to close out, General, what do you say to those that are concerned that we do not have an endgame here?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I think we do.

QUESTION: What is that endgame?

GENERAL ALLEN: A territorially intact and sovereign Iraq, governed by a government in Baghdad that governs all Iraqis – not just one sect, not just one confession. And in Syria, we’re seeking to create the capacity within the Syrian – the Free Syrian elements and the Syrian opposition so that, first of all, they can defend themselves from the Assad regime and from the other al-Qaida-oriented organizations in the battlespace. So they can defend themselves, they can build out their capabilities, they can become politically unified, and ultimately become that voice that is so important to the political outcome – a political outcome that is one that is a political outcome for the Syrian people, an outcome that does not envisage the presence of Assad.

QUESTION: General Allen, thank you so much for joining us.

GENERAL ALLEN: It’s an honor to be with you today.

QUESTION: Thank you.