Interview With CBS News

John Allen
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL 
Washington, DC
May 28, 2015

QUESTION: General Allen, thank you very much for making time to talk to us today.

GEN ALLEN: Great to be with you.

QUESTION: ISIS now holds half of Syria and Iraq. Is there an urgent need to change the U.S. strategy?

GEN ALLEN: I think that the U.S. strategy has been evolving over – the implementation of the strategy has been evolving over time. We have done a great deal to work with the Iraqis in the stabilization of the environment in which this implementation is occurring. We work with them closely across a number of areas to help them to stabilize their security forces, to develop the capabilities. We support them with military capacity. We support them in areas potentially of stabilization for liberated populations. We’re supporting them in helping them to recover their police, ultimately so that police can secure those populations once the liberation has occurred. The Coalition has been pretty active in this regard and working very aggressively with the Iraqis to seek to provide the support necessary for them to take back their country.

QUESTION: But ISIS seems to have some momentum here.

GEN ALLEN: It has achieved some tactical momentum. The events in Ramadi, the events in Anbar, have certainly given us an opportunity to examine the support and the kinds of support that we’re going to need to give to the Iraqis over the long term, in order to defeat Daesh in this country. And in that context, that has been an opportunity for us to look at the many different ways in which we support the Iraqis, the many different ways in which we deal with the Iraqi leadership, to ensure that that implementation is as broad-based as it can be and be as helpful as it can be.

QUESTION: Well, France, one of the Coalition partners that you work with quite a lot, said that something needs to change very quickly when it comes to confronting ISIS or there will be disastrous consequences. I mean, do you feel that level of urgency?

GEN ALLEN: I feel urgency every day in the process.

QUESTION: But does something need to change? This is a call for a shift in strategy from France.

GEN ALLEN: Let’s be careful about what we’re saying when we talk about a shift in strategy. I think as we all do – and I’ve got a little experience in leading strategies – it’s incumbent upon those who would develop and implement a strategy to be constantly evaluating the strategy against the operational environment.

And as we continue to determine how Daesh is going to follow its own campaign plan, we’ve got to be able to adapt to that development as it unfolds and as we perceive it. So France is right to seek to set the conditions or to make the case that the coalition should be urgently involved in evaluating the strategy to ensure it is operationally relevant, which is the proper thing that we should be doing.

QUESTION: Strengthened?

GEN ALLEN: Well, strengthened is a relative term. In terms of providing the kind of support quickly and in the right places that could be strengthened, but it’s to ensure the relevance of the strategy to the operational environment. And that’s, I think, what we’re pursuing right now.

The Council of Ministers, for example, in Baghdad just last week passed unanimously a plan to provide support to the tribes and to the Iraqi Security Forces ultimately to recover Ramadi and Al Anbar. That’s going to be an important point of emphasis for the coalition to see how we can further support that plan that the council of ministers have adopted to ensure they’re able to liberate the Sunni population in Al Anbar and recover the provincial capital of that --

QUESTION: But that’s --

GEN ALLEN: -- of that province.

QUESTION: -- saying there needs to be an alternative to the Iraqi military. I mean, relying on Shiite militias, some of them backed by Iran, looking to some of the Sunni tribes, why isn’t the Iraqi military able to do that themselves?

GEN ALLEN: Well, the Iraqi military is in the building phase. And we have always seen – in fact, in my own experience in Al Anbar in ’07, the tribes played a very important role ultimately in the liberation of the province then from al-Qaida. And we fully expect – and the Iraqis want this to be the case – that the tribes will play an important role in the recovery of the province, the driving of Daesh out of the population centers, and the recovery of Ramadi. So the fact that tribes are involved in this is not something that we should be concerned about.

With regard to militias, it’s really important to understand that the militias are not just a single monolithic entity. There are the militias that you and I are used to hearing that have close alignments with Iran. Those are the extremist elements, and we don’t have anything to do with that. But there are elements of the Shia militias that volunteered last year to try to defend Iraq from the onslaught of Daesh who were called to arms by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and those elements, or the Popular Mobilization Force, as they are known, have been subordinated to the Iraqi higher military campaign or command. And they will provide maneuver capacity and additional firepower to the Iraqi Security Forces as we continue to build them out, as we continue to build the professionalization of the Iraqi forces.

So the fact that militias are involved and tribes are involved in this part of the campaign, this part of the implementation of supporting Iraq ultimately to recover the country, should not alarm us. We just need to ensure that we manage the outcome of this. Prime Minister Abadi’s been clear that these organizations within the Popular Mobilization Force, the Shia volunteers, will eventually either transition into the security forces themselves or go home. That’s the solution that he intends and I think that that’s a supportable outcome. So for now – this goes back to the point that you made about urgency – urgency is an important factor here in helping us to focus on supporting the Iraqis, the tribes, and the Popular Mobilization Force to take those actions necessary to defeat Daesh locally.

QUESTION: But when it comes to the existing Iraqi military, Defense Secretary Carter said this week they lack the will to fight. Do you agree?

GEN ALLEN: This conversation and the words of the Secretary have been examined in this town and I don’t want to spend any time further discussing what he said. I think we’re all agreed – regardless of the past and where we think we’ll go with the future –we’re all agreed that the Iraqi troops that we know can form the basis of a credible and capable force that can take back this country. But it’s going to take a long time.

From the very outset of this campaign we have recognized that the recovery and the regeneration of the Iraqi Security Forces was not something that was going to happen overnight. And as they build capabilities, as they build capacity within their leadership, as they build a record of local successes and victories, they’ll gain confidence over time and they’ll gain operational and battlefield credibility and capabilities over time.

And so now is when we’re attempting to do that. And now we’re seeking to use all of those methods and options and units that are available to us so that we can set the Iraqi Security Forces in general on the road to success. But at the same time, we’re going to continue the process of the professionalization of the forces, and I think that’s what the Secretary was talking about – working to build the professionalization of those forces.

QUESTION: But what about – what about what you believe? Is this a matter of will? Does the Iraqi military have the will to fight right now?

GEN ALLEN: I believe the Iraqi military is going to combine its capabilities and ultimately liberate this country. It’s going to take a while to do that.

QUESTION: Just not yet.

GEN ALLEN: It’s not a matter of not yet, it’s a matter of how much more needs to be done. And I think we’re going to do a great deal more with the Iraqis, in partnership with the coalition, to create that capability within the Iraqi Security Forces to be able to take their country back.

QUESTION: You’re saying professionalization. Is will something you can train?

GEN ALLEN: Will is about leadership. Will is about confidence. Will is about, as I said, amassing success, and that doesn’t come overnight. That comes over time. And that is part of the process of the professionalization and the development of the Iraqi Security Forces that we’re undertaking now.

QUESTION: A large part of this battle is also symbolic; it is about momentum. It is about not just land seized but messages sent. And when you look at 10,000 Iraqi troops up against just 900 ISIS fighters, it looks like they just gave up Ramadi.

GEN ALLEN: Look, let’s make sure we get the numbers right here – and those numbers are not just 10,000 against 900. Ten thousand troops, as you’ve heard them explain in Anbar, are distributed across the entire province. The numbers that we’re up against the ISIS forces in Ramadi were different numbers.

So I think it’s important that we understand the context of those forces and we understand the relative combat power at any particular spot. Where there are Iraqi forces, for example in the town of Baghdadi all the way to the town of Haditha, which is up the Euphrates River, where we have had the time, frankly, at Al-Asad, where our trainers have been there for some period of time and have had access to both Iraqi Security Forces and to Iraqi rotational units going through a training program and the tribes, the success on the ground there has been significant.

That’s not something that we should be satisfied with. We should be doing more over time, and the plan ultimately provides for that – that over time, as we continue to train the Iraqi Security Forces, the rotational forces that are moving through those camps, as we continue to train those standing forces that exist today and as we continue to work with the tribes, that will create a critical mass. And we’re seeking to do that and that’s part of the plan right now.

QUESTION: What were the numbers? You said that 10 to 1 advantage isn’t correct?

GEN ALLEN: Well, I don’t want to go into that. It was significantly different. We’re saying that we thought there was somewhere between 400 and 800 Daesh, and somewhere around 2,000 Iraqis. But again, when you talk about numbers, 2,000 that are defending a wide-open city means that at any one place you don’t have a lot of fighters. But when Daesh comes at that force with large, vehicle-borne suicide truck bombs, truck bombs that are measured in the thousands of pounds of explosives – and that force has been fighting there for 18 months; that force has been holding out for a long period of time – what you discover is there’s a dynamic that takes place, and the close combat associated with that urban terrain, that can create the outcome that we saw in Ramadi.

So we’ve got to be careful about just lining up the numbers. We’ve got to ensure what the context is for the battle itself, so that we understand the lessons learned that we can take away from that, ultimately to roll those lessons back into the program of training and development that we want to undertake the help the Iraqis ultimately be successful.

QUESTION: Are the ISIS fighters that you described more capable than the Iraqi military?

GEN ALLEN: Well, they’re pretty good. They’re pretty good. And the troops that they were fighting at that particular location had been fighting for a long time, and they were tired. They had been – they had not been well supported in the recent battles. A relief column that was coming in turned around and went back because it was badly ambushed. So once again it was an issue that I believe was the effect of the local conditions on the ground at that particular moment, which ultimately derived the outcome in Ramadi.

That’s not the case going to be – that’s going to be the case everywhere. Fresh troops, freshly trained with the right kind of support are going to have a very different outcome in the battlespace, and we have seen that in other places in Iraq. We have seen that in other places, for example, at Kobani, in Syria where we supported a coherent defensive force that was relatively well-supplied and supported. They did very well in that case. And we will see that in other places as time goes on. It’s a matter of our having the opportunity to have the effect that we want in the training of these forces and ultimately the implementation of those forces with our support in the battlespace.

QUESTION: How does training need to change? Does it?

GEN ALLEN: Well, I think we need to let the training play out. None of the forces – or most of the forces that were involved in Ramadi had not gone through our training program. I think that’s relevant. But the forces that have gone through the training program at Al-Asad have done well in the battlespace, and they have done well against Daesh. So if you’re looking for measures of effectiveness, what we’re finding is those troops that have been trained have done better than those that have not been trained. And the intent ultimately is as the Iraqis build their own capacity to train an as we continue to take rotational forces through the four training centers in Iraq, we’ll see that both the professionalism and the professional competence of the forces will improve.

QUESTION: So can you give some perspective to U.S. taxpayers who look at this $25 billion that has been spent altogether on the Iraqi military and say “When all of that is going to pay off?”

GEN ALLEN: Well, are you talking about the $25 billion that’s been spent through the course of 2003 to 2011? Or are you talking about the money that’s invested right now?

QUESTION: Or – cumulative investment. I mean, when are they going to see a return on that $25 billion?

GEN ALLEN: Well, I think they’re going to see a return relatively soon as we continue the process of rotating these forces through and continuing to give them the opportunity to be trained and equipped, to be properly supported in the battlespace, as the Iraqis continue to build their command and control, as they continue under the competent leadership of Prime Minister Abadi to organize a comprehensive campaign for the recovery of Iraq. I think we’ll see the return on that investment.

QUESTION: And you’re measuring this in years?

GEN ALLEN: What we’re saying is that this is going to be a long campaign and it could be.

QUESTION: This is really familiar territory to you, of course, because of all the time that you spent in your previous role in Iraq. I mean, you’ve – you spent years fighting in and around Ramadi. Many of your fellow Marines lost their lives taking some of these cities that are now under ISIS control. Is this something personal for you?

GEN ALLEN: It sure is. It sure is. That’s the reason I’m actually sitting here today, is to help, ultimately, to give the Iraqis the capacity to take those cities back and ultimately to take Iraq back and ultimately to change the conditions in Iraq that will never permit Daesh to flourish or to find a foothold in this country again.

QUESTION: What did you feel when you saw the military just basically abandon Ramadi to ISIS?

GEN ALLEN: It was not a good feeling, frankly.

QUESTION: Were you angry?

GEN ALLEN: Yes, I was angry. And there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be. Any of the Marines or soldiers that fought there or gave their witness to their units and their fellow soldiers or Marines give their lives there is going to have very strong feelings about this. And I had very strong feelings about this, which means, for me, it’s a matter of now doubling down and helping the Iraqis to be successful.

QUESTION: Doubling down meaning you want to see this through, not doubling down, sticking with the plan and the strategy as it is?

GEN ALLEN: We’ll make sure that the strategy accounts for the things that we have learned associated with this particular activity in Ramadi, but also recognizing that there are strengths to the strategy that we should be emphasizing as well. And we’re going to continue to make sure the strategy is relevant with respect to the operational environment. And I think that Ramadi has given us an opportunity to take a real appraisal of the operational environment.

QUESTION: One of the Marines who served under you in Ramadi spoke to CBS News recently. And he said he was also angry when he saw Ramadi fall. It caused him a lot of pain, he said, thinking of his fellow Marines who died there. What do you say to all those Marines who now look at what’s happening and question: What was this for and why is this being allowed to happen now? Why isn’t the U.S. doing more?

GEN ALLEN: What I say to them is that everything that they did, every sacrifice that they made, every bit of the effort that they put into that fight was a noble investment on their part. And they should be proud of what they’ve done.

In the circumstances that have occurred in the aftermath of our departure, the political situation in Iraq ultimately created the opportunity for the military to end up in the state that it is in and for Daesh to achieve a foothold in the country. That foothold has created the crisis that we’re now involved in. And we’re taking the steps that are going to be necessary, ultimately, for the solution to this crisis to be solved by the Iraqis. And it’s going to be done by our providing the support to them to make it possible.

So they should be very proud of what they had accomplished. They should be very proud of the noble sacrifices of their fallen brothers that are Marines and fellow soldiers. But they should also recognize that in the end, Iraqis taking back Iraq for themselves, trained by Americans and Coalition partners, is the best way to solve this.

QUESTION: I think there are – there’s something that people struggle with with this idea, and that’s “The Iraqis need to win this fight for themselves” is the message from the Administration, at the same time that ISIS is viewed as a national security threat to the United States. If Iraq can’t do that on the ground – they haven’t shown they can so far – when will the U.S. – what point does the U.S. say there needs to be something more done?

GEN ALLEN: Well, I’m not going to speculate on when that will be. As I said before, we will constantly evaluate the outcomes of the strategy against our intent to ensure that we adapt that strategy as necessary to accomplish their objectives. And I’m not going to speculate on the timeline of that.

QUESTION: But you don’t see those two ideas as somewhat contradictory?

GEN ALLEN: No, I don’t. The strategy as it was initially envisaged anticipated that there would be some period of time that it would take ultimately to prepare the Iraqi Security Forces to be effective and successful. That period of time is still unfolding. Ramadi was a setback, and we’ve learned a lot from Ramadi. And we’re going to apply the lessons that we learn to ensure that we do the very best job that we can in terms of providing support to the Iraqi Security Forces. If more is needed beyond that, then there will be leaders that’ll make those recommendations when the time comes.

QUESTION: How much of a threat would you say ISIS still poses to U.S. national security?

GEN ALLEN: Well, I think it does pose a threat. I think there --

QUESTION: Less than a year ago? We’re a year into this campaign almost. Almost a year into this campaign, are we still at that same threat level?

GEN ALLEN: Well, I would suggest you talk to the Secretary of Homeland Security on that issue. It’s been – Daesh has made no secret of the fact that they would like to attack American interests both overseas and at home. But I think that the activities and the work undertaken by Secretary Johnson and the Department of Homeland Security, the work of the Attorney General and the FBI and our intelligence services – they have been dealing with that threat and have been meeting that threat. There have been numerous arrests that have been made. We work very closely with our partners with respect to border crossing, with respect to activities associated with stemming the flow of both potential foreign fighters going out and foreign fighters coming back. So while, yes, there is a threat, I believe that the Department of Homeland Security and other elements within our national security apparatus are poised to deal with that every day.

QUESTION: The State Department says there are about 22,000 foreign fighters flowing into the fight. Is that number going to lessen anytime soon?

GEN ALLEN: We hope it will. We have taken a lot of measures, both unilaterally and bilaterally – and multilaterally – as a country, but we’re also taking measures within the Coalition to create as much of an impediment to that movement or friction associated with that movement as possible. For example, about 30 of the Coalition partners have passed legislation internally that criminalizes being involved in foreign fighting. There is an increase in the sharing of information between and among countries, especially within the Coalition.

QUESTION: When you look at the numbers, have you seen that make a difference on the ground?

GEN ALLEN: We’re building the momentum to do that. And I think that we will see that unfold over time.

QUESTION: Why are foreign fighters still flying?

GEN ALLEN: Because there’s a strong draw, I think, from the idea of the caliphate, for certain elements of certain populations to want to be part of this. And they will continue. Part of our efforts with respect to dealing with foreign fighters is to recognize that this is going to be a long-term issue. The whole business of the emergence of violent extremism in the region and more broadly around the world has created both the platform and the impetus for individuals to seek to become part of this organization, or organizations like that, ultimately, to help them to accomplish their jihadist ends.

So as we look at the means to impede the movement of foreign fighters or to deal with foreign fighters, you have to look at it across the entire spectrum of activity, from how someone becomes radicalized, how they then choose ultimately to move into a particular battlespace – whether it’s Syria or Iraq or some other place on the globe – and how we as a community of nations can both deal with the issue of the initial radicalization, how we can share information and intelligence to make it difficult for movement from a source country or a country of origin through transit sites or transitional locations, and how ultimately we can hold those fighters accountable when they return to include even rehabilitation and reinsertion of that individual as a constructive member back into the population.

So it’s a wide and a broad spectrum of activities that we as a nation, but as we as a member of the community of nations are seeking to undertake to deal with the foreign fighter issue comprehensively.

QUESTION: Is that Turkish border still the main entry point?

GEN ALLEN: It is. There are other ways that they get into the region, but they do get across the Turkish border. That’s correct.

QUESTION: Well, when you look at the fight, the long-term strategy of trying to destroy ISIS, how can you eliminate them when there is a safe haven in Syria? If you don’t eliminate that cross-border threat, how do you win this fight?

GEN ALLEN: Well, the intention ultimately is to build the capacity within Syria to deal with Daesh as an entity in that country as well.

QUESTION: But the strategy right now as it’s articulated is Iraq first, then Syria.

GEN ALLEN: No, it’s Iraq first and Syria at the same time. We’re doing work in Syria at the same time that we’re undertaking the support of Iraq. So it’s not a purely sequential undertaking. It is – Iraq is the main effort for the moment, but there’s also shaping efforts underway in Syria to include the train and equip program. So it is not sequential in that context.

QUESTION: Does that need to be sped up?

GEN ALLEN: At this point we’ve achieved our objectives of starting the training. We’ll evaluate that process as it unfolds, and if there is a need for that to accelerate, then we’ll come forward with a recommendation.

QUESTION: The number that’s often referenced is just 90 fighters are actually in the program that the U.S. is running. Is that an accurate description?

GEN ALLEN: It’s the beginning of the program. The program’s going to take some time. I think another way of looking at it are the numbers of recruits that have expressed an interest in participating, and that’s 4,500 at this point. Somewhere between 4,500 and the number that is convened on the first day of training is the number that you’ll ultimately have. And that process comes from a vetting process that is relatively comprehensive, and ultimately, as we will see it unfold, as this force which is to be reintroduced, ultimately, and if Syria achieves success in the battlespace, I think we’re going to see that there will be larger numbers that will want to come and be part of this.

QUESTION: Okay. How do you do this without providing some kind of air protection for the rebels that are being trained to win the fight on the ground in Syria? Have you come to an agreement on that?

GEN ALLEN: There will be support ultimately for those forces that we are training. I'm not going to get into the specifics of it. There will be support for those forces, and the intent of that support is ultimately to make them successful.

QUESTION: All right. Thank you, sir.