Interview With France 24
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL
QUESTION: Welcome to the interview on France 24. I’m Philip Crowther in Washington. We’re at the State Department today to talk about the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State organization, a fight that began in September of last year with airstrikes in Syria and in Iraq, and a fight that most recently has seen some severe setbacks, and most recently and most notably the fall of the city of Ramadi, of course, in Anbar province in Iraq. To talk about this fight against the Islamic State organization, we’re joined today by General John Allen. He is President Obama’s envoy for the coalition to counter the Islamic State group.
General Allen, thank you very much for being with us.
GEN ALLEN: Good to be with you.
QUESTION: Well, first of all, with what has happened recently, surely nine months ago, more or less when all of this began, you weren’t imagining yourself sitting here after these serious setbacks – first of all, the fall of Ramadi, but also the fall of Palmyra in Syria. Frankly, this tactic to ultimately destroy ISIS, as the White House puts it – it’s not going very well, is it really?
GEN ALLEN: I’d be careful about that kind of an articulation. Nine months ago, there wasn’t a Coalition, for all intents and purposes. And in the period of time since then, the Coalition has provided significant air support to a number of operations across Iraq, many of which were very successful both in terms of defending critical terrain but also in taking back terrain from Daesh – from ISIL, as you call it. We provided critical support to Kobani and the defenders there. Where Daesh anticipated and sought a victory before the world media, they were administered a decisive defeat in that particular location. Daesh’s attempt to take Erbil resulted in enormous loss of their capabilities.
And there have been setbacks. There were setbacks before Ramadi, but there were also gains. And so we need to take all of this in stride, recognizing this is a long strategy and recognizing that we’re still relatively early in this strategy.
But we also have to recognize that beyond the military dimension of the Coalition, there are really some significant activities underway as well. The Coalition operates along five lines of effort, and I’ll be very brief. Beyond the military piece, we have the line of effort with respect to stemming the flow of foreign fighters, interdicting Daesh’s financial assets, providing for stabilization – in essence, the rescue of the liberated populations – and then ultimately a counter-messaging dimension to the strategy as well. And the Coalition is distributed across all of those areas. France plays an important role, frankly, in all of those. And the coalition is achieving effect in all of those areas. So while Ramadi is a setback and while Ramadi, in fact, was a defeat, there have been significant successes as well. The obligation of the Coalition now is, with our eyes wide open, to look at what happened in Ramadi, and when we meet soon at the Ministerial level, take full stock of and an appraisal of what happened in Ramadi with the idea of taking those actions necessary for the implementation of the strategy so it’ll be successful.
QUESTION: While Ramadi was a defeat, as you say, could you still at this point say that the coalition – the U.S.-led Coalition is winning this fight against the Islamic State group?
GEN ALLEN: I would say that we are continuing to administer setbacks to Daesh.
QUESTION: Are they losing?
GEN ALLEN: They’re losing ground. They’ve lost significant numbers of troops, a lot of equipment – and again, I don’t like to go into numbers because they change every minute. But there have been some battlefield successes of late, and those are undeniable. But the challenge for us is to ensure we understood what happened, how we can take action as a Coalition to support the Iraqis so that we can prevent that from happening again. And we are, in fact, taking action to do that, and that will be part of the discussion that we have in Paris when we meet on the 2nd.
QUESTION: The ultimate goal, officially, is to ultimately destroy ISIS. That is how the White House defines it. That seems to be a relatively optimistic ask, considering that al-Qaida, after all, more or less in the same areas, was supposed to entirely defeated too. That hasn’t worked out. Can a group like the Islamic State organization be entirely defeated? Is that even possible?
GEN ALLEN: Well, we need to be careful about applying a – solely a military term to an outcome. When you hear us talk about the defeat of Daesh, inherent in the outcome is an expectation that specifically and more broadly we can deal with some of the underlying causes that ultimately bring an organization like Daesh into being and give it the capacity to generate capability. So at the same time we talk about the defeat of Daesh, we’re also talking about dealing with the origins of violent extremism, and I think we would say that we have to deal with the political issues. We have to deal with inherent social, economic, religious issues, because in the end, the aggregation of those create an environment where an organization like Daesh can find cohesion and purpose.
QUESTION: But couldn’t that situation be getting more complex still, maybe in the coming days or weeks? Because there will be strong Shiite militias involved in this counteroffensive on Ramadi, and these are Shiite militias that I presume you will be supporting. You will be supporting whoever is under the control of Mr. Abadi in Iraq. Aren’t things getting a little bit too complex? You’ll – indirectly, you’ll be fighting almost alongside Iran, after all.
GEN ALLEN: No.
QUESTION: Some of these are militias who are strongly supported by Iran.
GEN ALLEN: We’re not supporting those militias. It’s important for your viewers and observers of this process to understand that the Shia militias are not monolithic. There is that component of the Shia militias which have been tied both by their extremism and their alignment with Iran over a long period of time, but there’s a large segment – in fact, the preponderance of the Shia militias that are in the field today responded to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call for all loyal Iraqis to flock to the flag last year when the emergency of Daesh was unfolding and Iraq looked like it was on its knees. And one day they were a teacher; the next day they’re holding a weapon and they’re in the ranks and they’re fighting. And those are the Shia militia elements which in Tikrit were ultimately subsumed under the Iraqi high command, and when we dropped ordnance in the battle space, that was one of our requirements. The Coalition required that those Shia militias be part of the security forces. And they were there, and they will be in Anbar.
That doesn’t mean that some of those other Shia militias might be in the field, but we’re not going to support them, and we’re not going to support Iran in this process. We’re going to support Prime Minister Abadi and his Iraqi Security Forces, a portion of which are the Popular Mobilization Forces I’ve described, in liberating and ultimately recovering both Ramadi and Al Anbar.
QUESTION: And you’ll be supporting them with material as well. After all, there will be more weapons, presumably more U.S.-led airstrikes – please correct me if I’m wrong, but one must presume that there will be more. These are weapons that will be given to Iraqi Security Forces and might again fall into the wrong hands. After all, at this point, some of the airstrikes are destroying material that essentially the United States gave to the Iraqi Security Forces. Couldn’t more of that simply happen once you give more weapons to the Iraqi Security --
GEN ALLEN: Well, that’s a hypothetical, and --
QUESTION: It’s happened before.
GEN ALLEN: Well, it has, and you’re correct. And we have destroyed equipment that we have given to those forces. My expectation is that as we undertake the training necessary for these forces ultimately to be equipped by the U.S. and the Coalition – and the Coalition is an important part of this – that we not only discipline them to use the weapons, but we discipline them to control the weapons. And that’s an important dimension of being a professional force. And that’s what our expectation will be. Can I tell you that none of those weapons will ultimately be lost or we’ll lose control of them? I can’t give you that certainty, but I think in the context of the training that we’re going to undertake, the likelihood of that will be small.
QUESTION: This would presumably be a lot easier for you and for the military Coalition if there were boots on the ground – maybe specifically U.S. combat boots on the ground. This is a discussion that again has begun here in Washington. Would you, as the Presidential Envoy to the Coalition – would you admit that it would be a lot easier if there were some U.S. soldiers, combat soldiers, on the ground?
GEN ALLEN: This is what we learned by being on the ground in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and I’ve got extensive experience in both: You can achieve certain objectives with your own national forces on the ground, but often the outcome of that is to create a radicalization or a radicalization of the population; that you may achieve a short-term gain by having those forces on the ground, but in the end, that presence often becomes more the problem than the solution.
And so, having learned that in a number of places, having watched that through history, what we are attempting to do here – which I think is the right thing – is to empower the indigenous forces of Iraq and ultimately Syria to take back their countries. And we can provide the kinds of training necessary for them to be capable of doing that. We can provide the kinds of firepower necessary to enable and to facilitate their capabilities.
And in the end, when they have ultimately – let’s say in Iraq in this case – when Iraq has restored its territorial integrity and the central government and the provincial governments have extended sovereignty over the areas of their governance, they will have done it. We will not have done it, and we will have supported their doing it. There creates then the opportunity for permanence in the solution, and that’s the operating philosophy behind the strategy at this point.
QUESTION: Usually the Administration – and I believe you yourself as well – don’t like to put an end date on this or don’t like to say how long this operation will last. But recently, from senior Administration officials what we hear is this is a three-year fight, essentially, against the Islamic State organization. And there’s been a lot of pressure over the last few weeks, with the fall of Ramadi, on the White House to change its policy somewhat, to change its tactics. And the day after the fall of Ramadi, if I remember correctly, you were at the White House for a meeting with the President.
GEN ALLEN: Sure.
QUESTION: Is there serious talk about a potential change in tactics within the coalition?
GEN ALLEN: A couple things. Strategies are about long-term objectives. And so it’s inherent in any implementation of any strategy that you are constantly evaluating the long-term objectives against those ways and means that you’re applying ultimately to accomplish those objectives. And you have to do that kind of a constant evaluation to ensure that those ways and means and those objectives remain relevant to the operational environment.
So when we talk about taking the lessons learned from Ramadi and applying those lessons learned to the implementation of the ways and means of the strategy, that’s completely consistent with how we should be running this. The question isn’t whether we’re going to change ways and means. That will change as the operational environment changes. The question is whether we need to change the ultimate objectives of the strategy, and we’re not there now.
QUESTION: You say lessons might be learned with the fall of Ramadi and this counteroffensive that is – appears to be being organized as we speak, might even be happening as we speak --
GEN ALLEN: (Inaudible.)
QUESTION: You – first of all, what do you know about the counteroffensive? How close are we to seeing a serious attempt at taking back Ramadi on behalf of the Iraqi forces?
GEN ALLEN: Well, the Iraqis are extraordinarily intent on taking back Ramadi and ultimately liberating all of the Anbar province. And they’re in the process of organizing to do that. They have some activities – I don’t want to get into the operational detail, obviously, because Daesh is probably watching – they are undertaking some activities right now that will give them a sense of the battle space and how they can apply and where they can apply force necessary. We’ll be very closely in touch with them, lockstep with them, as this process of planning unfolds and the establishment and the analysis on the troops that will be necessary. And our part of this will be to be helpful as we can, to provide support as necessary ultimately to achieve the success that they want and we want, of course.
QUESTION: What kind of a fight can you expect in Ramadi? The Administration recently has suggested that what will happen in Ramadi might be similar to what happened in Kobani. That took a long time, to get Kobani out of the hands of the Islamic State organization, and pretty much destroyed the city. Is that something that we’re looking at with Ramadi as well?
GEN ALLEN: I don’t know, and that’s a good question for the Pentagon. I think as we try to understand what’s inside that city, we’ll get a better feel for what kinds of forces will be necessary and the kinds of firepower that will be demanded, ultimately, to support that force. I think what we do know is every day that force remains inside of Ramadi it’ll be harder to eject from Ramadi, so that’s part of the urgency, I think, that is animating the process of moving forward aggressively with planning, assembling the forces, and ultimately moving out to the west and recovering Ramadi.
QUESTION: And finally, General Allen, you’ll be traveling to Paris very soon to meet other members of the coalition. You’ll be meeting the French foreign minister, for example – Mr. Fabius – and he said recently that he thinks that the coalition needs reinforcing. What exactly does that mean, and can it be reinforced? We’re looking at 62 Coalition members – countries and organizations – at this point. What more can be done?
GEN ALLEN: Well, we obviously listen very carefully to what Foreign Minister Fabius would say. The Coalition is always looking for opportunities that it can be helpful to the process of implementing the strategy. And where nine months ago we barely had a Coalition at all, today, as I described earlier, the Coalition is doing extraordinarily important work with respect to stabilization, the recovery of the Sunni Iraqi police to protect the Sunni populations. There are other areas that the Coalition is looking at right now where we can be very helpful to the Iraqis but have yet to organize to do that. So there are opportunities both immediately and opportunities we don’t yet understand where the Coalition can organize and achieve synergy both in terms of leadership and advice, but also in the marshaling of resources to help the Iraqis to achieve their objectives.
QUESTION: The Coalition, though, is not growing at this point, is it? At least militarily, from the first Coalition that was put together, no one really is joining. No one has joined in the last nine months. Is that something that could happen?
GEN ALLEN: Oh, absolutely, and we are in conversation with many countries – and I think this is an important point, and this may well be part of the point that the foreign minister is attempting to make. If countries want to join the Coalition, we invite their involvement. But there are many countries that choose not to be a part of the Coalition, but we have active conversations with them. And there is coordination, there is cooperation, because there are not a few of the countries not in the coalition who also have their national interests potentially to be affected by Daesh.
And so they may never join the Coalition, but that doesn’t mean we won’t talk to them; that doesn’t mean we won’t compare notes. It also doesn’t mean we won’t cooperate and even coordinate with them. Joining the Coalition is a choice that will be made at a national level within those countries. We’re happy to have the conversation with those countries when they do choose to do it, but I frequently visit capitals where I have conversations with countries that I don’t anticipate being part of the Coalition, but we have close cooperation and close consultation.
QUESTION: General Allen, we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much for your time and thank you for being with us today.
GEN ALLEN: Honored to be with you today. Thank you.