Interview With Judy Woodruff, PBS NewsHour

John Allen
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL 
Washington, DC
June 16, 2015

QUESTION: General John Allen, thank you very much for talking with us.

GEN ALLEN: It’s always a pleasure, Judy. Thank you.

QUESTION: So you’ve just come back from a trip to Iraq and a number of other countries. The news lately about ISIS has been pretty disappointing, in fact, discouraging, but there was some good news yesterday out of Syria in a battle right on the Turkish border. What can you tell us about that?

GEN ALLEN: Well, the reporting is still coming together on this, Judy. It’s a long-term effort that’s been underway by some of the resistance elements in that region to ultimately cut off a border crossing called Tal Abyad. And it, we believe, is one of the principal sources for supply to Daesh’s, or ISIL’s, capital in Raqqa to the south.

You’ll recall the fighting in Kobani last year. The defenders of Kobani not just held onto the city, but pushed out pretty significantly to the – in all directions, actually, to – from that city. But there’s been other activity as well to the east of Kobani. And forces to the east of Kobani and the forces in the Kobani pocket have been moving towards each other, and have since cut off Tal Abyad. And frankly, while they relieved the pressure on Kobani, this is going to be able to increase the pressure on Raqqa.

So we’re waiting to get more reporting on it. We’ll get more over the next few days and get a better and clearer picture. But one thing that’s very important, I think, is as these forces continue to operate we’re going to continue to make the point with them that they have to protect the populations that they’re liberating. It’s essential, really, to the stabilization of the area. So we’re going to watch that as well.

QUESTION: But as we were saying, overall the news has been pretty discouraging: the fall of Ramadi, the last stronghold essentially of the Iraqi Government in Anbar province; and of course, the fact that ISIS has been able to not just take but hold large swaths of territory in Syria; in Iraq, we’re now a year out from ISIS taking over Mosul. I mean, who has the upper hand right now in this conflict?

GEN ALLEN: Well, I think the momentum is growing, actually, on the part of the Coalition and the Iraqis. If you look at the battle space across Iraq, Tikrit was recently liberated, which is not an insignificant city, frankly. And very important activity is going on in Tikrit today, in the province of Salah ad Din, is that starting yesterday families began to return to Tikrit after it was liberated. There has been the beginning of the recovery of the Sunni Iraqi police of that province, which will be essential to securing and holding that population.

The process of providing for the sustainment and the stabilization of that population is underway. For example, the Coalition worked very hard with Iraqis and the United Nations to create a stabilization fund of money that we can move very quickly to support liberated populations.

So Tikrit has been liberated. Baiji is only days, I think, from finally coming under the control of Iraqi Security Forces, and to fulfill ultimately our desires – the Iraqi desires with respect to the counteroffensive. It’s not just beating Daesh; it’s ultimately moving populations back into their home villages, or in this case the city, and doing that in a way where we can secure the populations through the recovered police. And doing it in a way where we can provide stabilization to the population by the movement of funds created as a result of the Coalition. That’s a pretty important outcome, and that process is underway in a number of places in Iraq.

QUESTION: Now the President just announced at the end of last week that 450 more U.S. military advisors, trainers will be going to Iraq soon to beef up the U.S. presence there now to work in Anbar province. How much difference is that going to make? What exactly is going to happen now that wasn’t happening before?

GEN ALLEN: Well, that’s an important question. I think it’s going to be very helpful, frankly. What you saw with the defeat in Ramadi – and we learned a lot about that – was that in the end, while those defenders fought hard for a long period of time and ultimately withdrew, if you go up the river just a short distance to al-Asad, an operational platform where we’ve been for some period of time, the training of Iraqi Security Forces and the training of tribal forces has rendered a big segment of the Euphrates River completely empty of Daesh. There is the proof of the concept behind the strategy of ultimately empowering the indigenous forces to take control of their areas.

What al-Taqaddum is, is another operational platform.

QUESTION: This is the base.

GEN ALLEN: This is the new facility. That’s correct. It’s the new base on which we’ll put American special operators for the purposes of supporting advising, assisting, and training Iraqi Security Forces.

And it’s also a focus point for two other things. We’ve already had a tribal ceremony where 1,000 tribesmen appeared at Habbaniyah, which is – it’s the complex of Habbaniyah and al-Taqaddum – some days ago, and they were enlisted into the Popular Mobilization Force. We have another one of those tomorrow some additional – probably hundreds – of Iraqi tribesmen from the eastern portion of Al Anbar will come to.

QUESTION: So these are Sunni?

GEN ALLEN: They’re Sunni and they are tribal fighters. But also there’s a new provincial chief of police, and he’s gathering the police there as well that were scattered by Daesh, over 3,000 of them. And Coalition partners are going to start training them this month to support ultimately the retaking of Ramadi, and then ultimately beyond Ramadi the Al Anbar province. So this operational platform gives us a good base in the eastern part of Anbar to rally the tribes and to provide additional support and training to the Iraqi Security Forces there.

QUESTION: And why wasn’t that happening before? I mean, the U.S. has had these advisors in there now for many months training Iraqi troops on top of training that took place in the previous U.S. deployment in Iraq.

GEN ALLEN: Well, the concept of additional operational platforms has always been under consideration, and we may see additional ones in the future as time goes on. And I think the Chairman gave voice to that last week in some of his commentary. So it’s not – so it shouldn’t be a surprise, nor is it unusual, that we would want to create that operational base from which then the training can occur that can provide the means by which the Iraqis can leap off into the attack and ultimately move out.

What’s – what Taqaddum has given us in Al Anbar is the ability to get access to the substantial segments of the Anbari population that couldn’t get to Al Asad so far up the Euphrates River. So this was a logical next move.

QUESTION: But it wasn’t happening before. Is that because the Iraqi Government wasn’t pushing hard enough for this? What was holding it up?

GEN ALLEN: No, in fact, it wasn’t that it was being held up. One of the things that we learned, obviously, from the outcome of Ramadi, that in order to facilitate the plans that the council of ministers and the prime minister ultimately put forward immediately in the aftermath of the fall of Ramadi was let’s recover the police, let’s empower the tribes, let’s train the Iraqi Security Forces, let’s support the Iraqi headquarters. And locating that operational platform to do all of those to support the Iraqi desire and the Prime Minister’s desire and his Council of Ministers – the location for that was best determined to be Taqaddum and the Habbaniyah complex.

QUESTION: The reason I’m asking, of course, is because folks have – experts who’ve looked at this have said no wonder many of the Sunni tribal leaders and tribal individuals haven’t wanted to join the fight is their view is: Why help a government that we’re not sure is going to support us? They see the Abadi government as being a government that is pro-Shia and has not embraced the Sunni population.

GEN ALLEN: I would dispute the characterization of the Abadi government being pro-Shia. The Abadi government has – is attempting, I think pretty strenuously, to represent the interests of all Iraqis – of Shia, of Sunni, and Kurds. For example, they have completed the central government and the KRG – Kurdistan Regional Government’s – oil deal after 10 years of trying. They were successful in doing that and they’ve sustained that progress. That’s an outreach to the Kurds that we’ve not seen before in previous governments.

And Prime Minister Abadi believes in this concept called “functional federalism,” which is the devolution of power to the governors. And he has devolved power actively to the governors of Salah ad Din and to Al Anbar. And he’s talked about empowering the tribes. That wouldn’t have happened in the previous government. So he’s attempting not to be biased toward the Shia and then do something thereafter for the Sunnis. He’s working on behalf of the Sunnis to make Iraq whole and complete again.

QUESTION: But there has been a lack of participation, should we say, on the part of the Sunni in the fight – in much of the fight that’s taken place.

GEN ALLEN: Well, first of all, much of their homeland has been occupied by Daesh. So we’ve got to get them on their feet again. And that’s what this operational platform does at Taqaddum and Habbaniyah. It gives them the capacity to rally in one place, ultimately to be trained by Americans and Iraqis to give them the capacity to take back the eastern part of the province and to work closely with the other elements that are up the river towards Al Asad.

QUESTION: And there’s been reporting there may be more bases established. Is that on the table?

GEN ALLEN: Well, that’s what I alluded to that with respect to what the chairman said last week.

QUESTION: As you know, there are folks looking at this out there saying, how did you arrive at 450? Why wasn’t it 350, or why wasn’t it a thousand? Why is that the right number? How do you know it’s enough? Why wouldn’t it be much more than that? Why wouldn’t it take that many more people to be effective?

GEN ALLEN: Well, I leave that kind of decision making and those kinds of force development recommendations to the Chairman, properly, and the Secretary of Defense and the operational commander, Lloyd Austin. And they looked at the requirement, they looked at the mission, and they offered the recommendation that this number and this composition of the force that goes into Taqaddum will ultimately support the requirements that we seek to achieve.

QUESTION: Another view that’s out there – well, there are a lot of views, as you (inaudible) --

GEN ALLEN: Yes, there are. There are a lot of views.

QUESTION: -- in Iraq. But one of the views out there is that the U.S. should be doing much more than this – if it’s worth doing anything, it’s worth coming in with overwhelming support; that this is taking too long; that ISIS is getting too long-lasting and deep a foothold; and the U.S. shouldn’t be making such a baby step, if you will.

GEN ALLEN: I think the U.S. has put in a great deal. Listen – all of the Coalition as well – I think we’re doing a great deal. Beyond the clearance of Tikrit, which would not have happened, frankly, without Coalition support to the Iraqi Security Forces; without our emphasis on recovery of the police and the lining up of Coalition partners to help to train the police; without going after actively the development of a sustainability or a stabilization fund to be administered through the UN with the support of the Iraqis and Coalition partners; without our constant training of Iraqi main force units and tribal elements, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

And so there’s a lot of activity that’s going on. We got four training camps that are up – when Taqaddum is operational, there’ll be a fifth – we have Coalition partners in all of those camps. We would like to see more Iraqis move through those camps, but a lot of the Iraqis forces that are available are fighting. And so we’ll work closely with the Iraqis to get their numbers up, but we’ll be ready to go. So there’s a lot of activity underway.

QUESTION: Another view is that this is just turning out to be too hard, it’s not going to work, and the U.S. should just basically pull back and let – leave the fight to the Kurds, the Iranians, anyone else in the region.

GEN ALLEN: Well, that’s not going to work. I mean, it completely destabilizes the region if we permit Iraq ultimately to come apart. And the chances are very good that that would be the case without the support that we’re providing to the Prime Minister at this particular moment.

And I think the President and those of us that have been involved in this process have been very clear up front, from the very beginning of this, that this was going to take a while. And it was a function of helping the Iraqi Government both to stabilize itself at the top, but to also help the Iraqi Government to begin to mobilize the Sunni elements and the relevant security forces at the bottom. The process of reconciliation is going to occur as a top-down and a bottom-up process. It’s not going to occur in the short term. It’s going to take some time, and we just need to recognize that.

QUESTION: What is the proper role for Shia-backed militias, for the Iranian-backed Shia militias in this fight?

GEN ALLEN: Well, we need to be clear on who these people are. There are a large number of elements in the field that are sometimes being mischaracterized as Iranian-backed Shia militias. Let’s turn back the clock and remember the fatwa issue by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani last year as Daesh was pouring down the Tigris River, which was basically a call for Iraqis to come to the defense of their country. Now, much of the Sunni heartland at the time had been overrun or was being overrun. So many of the troops, or many of the individuals that came were Shia. They came out of the south. And one day they were a teacher or a mechanic or a baker, and the next day, they were being organized into your regular forces and armed and sent into the fight and try to keep the country from coming apart.

Now, those are called Popular Mobilization Committee elements, and when you see them in the field, they’re Popular Mobilization Forces. Those are distinct from the extremist Shia militia elements that have had a close alignment to Iran over the long term. That’s Kata’ib Hizballah, it’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq, it’s Promised Day Brigades – it’s those organizations that do have a close alignment with Iran.

But the battle of Tikrit was really important. Because at the moment in the battle of Tikrit where the Government of Iraq, the senior leadership, asked for the Coalition’s support in that battle, the U.S. position and the Coalition position was that the Popular Mobilization Forces – which at the time were overwhelmingly Shia – needed to come under the command and control of Iraqi central command. And they have and they are, and they will remain that way.

That doesn’t mean that the other Shia elements that are aligned with Iran will not be in the battlespace, but we’re not going to support them. And what’s happened is these PMF elements – these Shia-dominated PMF elements – are in fact an important force multiplier and force contribution to the Iraqis in terms of taking back these locations.

So in liberating populations, they’re going to play a role, and they’re going to play a role under the central command of the Iraqi Security Forces. But the stabilization of the population we want to have be done with local leadership and local police, and that’s another important role that we’re undertaking right now: to recover the police and have them be an important Sunni presence in the immediate aftermath of liberation activity.

QUESTION: So you’re making this distinction because it’s so critical --

GEN ALLEN: It is. It’s an important distinction.

QUESTION: -- in terms of the Sunni interpretation (inaudible).

GEN ALLEN: That’s correct. And in fact, the governor of al-Anbar and the Provincial Council asked for PMF support in this, recognizing that even though they may be Shia, that they’ll be under the control of the Iraqi Security Forces.

QUESTION: I want to ask you about some of the other countries in the – well, certainly Syria, which – where ISIS also has a huge presence. We started out talking about them on the border. Has the – essentially the fight against ISIS just completely subsumed or all but subsumed the U.S. focus on President Assad?

GEN ALLEN: Oh no, not at all. Things are not trending in his favor currently. Six months ago, he was in a different position than he is today, which I believe is a position of some instability, but weaker in his position as a leader. His forces are not doing well in the battle space. There is a growing voice or a growing conversation of dissatisfaction with his leadership. And the United States has always said, and our Coalition partners have said, that while there could be military activity that sets the conditions ultimately for a change of the leadership in Syria, that we want this to come as a result of a political process – a political, democratic process.

So no, the United States and the Coalition partners are still strongly focused on a political process that removes Bashar al-Assad from the leadership of Syria and places it in the hands of the Syrian people.

QUESTION: But there’s much more attention, time, effort, money, material being focused now on ISIS. Is that – I mean, we’re not – the U.S. is not supporting the rebels in Syria --

GEN ALLEN: Well, we support the moderate Syrian opposition, and witness, then, what’s happening along the Syrian-Turkish border.

QUESTION: But not to the degree the U.S. is fighting – is supporting the Iraqis right now.

GEN ALLEN: Well, we have partners in Iraq that are larger, that are more distinguishable, that have the capacity more quickly to be in the battlespace and have an effect on Daesh. Over time, as we continue the train and equip program which is underway now, and as those forces are introduced into Syria, as we marry those forces up with elements that are in this battlespace today, which is having significant impact along the Syrian border against Daesh, we can see that this is going to have effect over the long term.

So we’re not doing Iraq alone to the exclusion of Syria; we can do both. But for now, we have partners in Iraq that lend our efforts greater credibility and greater likelihood of success in the short term. And we’ll get around, ultimately, in Syria to supporting that force as it becomes even more potent, as we continue to attack Daesh from the air, which we’re constantly doing.

QUESTION: General Allen, you also have been very focused on the flow – flood of foreign fighters into the region to work with, fight with ISIS. You were recently – you not only in Iraq, you’ve made a trip to the Balkan countries – Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro – because of concern about the source of foreign fighters there. Talk a little bit about what your message was there and how serious this problem is.

GEN ALLEN: Well, the Balkans are an interesting grouping of states. In many respects, they’re a microcosm of many of the other states within the Coalition, and more broadly in the international community as it relates to dealing with foreign fighters. They, of course, are at the center of North and South, East and West communications. And they are ancient cultures – ancient, multi-sectarian cultures that prior to the dissolution of Yugoslavia back in the ’90s, if you’ll recall, those cultures lived with great success and peaceful coexistence – one faith with another, one sect with another. But the political turmoil of the ’90s – and I was in Sarajevo briefly in ’95 and ’96 – I had the chance to see what it looked like. And when I got off the airplane last week in that same airport 20 years later, I was really struck by the enormous change that had occurred in those 20 years and how much work had gone into recovering the social equilibrium of those countries.

So they’re very concerned, as they should be, as we all should be, about the potential for destabilization within our own populations. And so they’ve taken very seriously dealing with the content – or the concept of a foreign fighter from the point of radicalization – which can often be in schools or on the internet or through social media – all the way through the cycle of the foreign fighter, until that individual may come back, in which case, how will they hold him accountable? Virtually all those states have changed their laws, are working with their judiciaries, and are looking at rehabilitation programs so they can deal with the foreign fighter, as we say, from the point of radicalization to the point of rehabilitation. And we can learn a lot by watching how they’ve had to adapt to this.

QUESTION: So have they had success?

GEN ALLEN: Well, they’re trying very hard. Every one of those countries is, in fact, a source country. But we’re also a source country. And we’re looking very hard at how we get at the business of reducing the attractiveness of the Caliphate,– the so-called Caliphate – which is often the point of legitimization for the message of Daesh. And they’re looking very hard at how they can use countering of violent extremism; they’ve embraced that concept – how they can get at the point of radicalization to reduce the attractiveness of the caliphate and the so-called Islamic State to the youth of their populations. And so they’re embracing that hard, and we can learn a lot from what they’re trying to do.

QUESTION: Just a couple more questions. In connection with that, there was a story in The Washington Post over the last few days essentially saying the U.S. is losing the battle in social media to win hearts and minds, that ISIS has been so effective in getting its message out there and making it seem so appealing, and that the U.S. and the Coalition is having a much tougher time. Where does that stand and --

GEN ALLEN: Sure, that’s a great question.

QUESTION: -- why is it so hard?

GEN ALLEN: Well, it’s hard for a variety of reasons. First, I don’t agree with the broad characterization that we’re losing the conflict in that regard. It’s a great challenge because Daesh only has one message, and they only have a single entity, by and large, that’s putting that message out. So it’s easy to get a unity of purpose and a unity of effort into that message.

But I recall the words very early along in the process of the stand-up of the Coalition by one of our Coalition’s leaders, and that’s King Abdullah II of Jordan, where he said this is about recovering our faith. And to do this we must have an Arab face and a Muslim face.

And I’ve traveled a lot, Judy, across the Coalition – I’ve been to 29 different capitals at this point. I’ve been to Southeast Asia, I’ve been to the Middle East, I’ve been in Europe, I’ve been in North America. And I would extend the King’s comments in the context of as we seek ultimately to counter in the information sphere this message of the so-called Caliphate and Daesh that seems to be attractive to elements of our youth within our at-risk populations, we have to have credible influencers, we’ve got to have credible faces and credible voices involved in that. So with that much diversity across so many regions of the world, achieving the unity of purpose and the unity of message is really important, and that’s what we’re working to do.

QUESTION: Just quickly on two other things. Turkey – President Erdogan recently tried to expand his majority in the government there in Parliament; did not succeed at that. Is there now an opening in Turkey to get more cooperation from them in the fight?

GEN ALLEN: Well, I would say that the Turks have worked all along with us to see how they might expand their role. And while I won’t go into the details, there are some areas right now where they’re making final decisions that will be of help to us. We’re in conversations with the Turks on some potential areas where we can increase our cooperation as well in the future. Of course, the election is interesting because they’ll have to form a different kind of government. So we’ll see how that unfolds, but I look forward to continuing the conversation with Turkey.

QUESTION: Finally, I know the State Department has not confirmed this – the death of the al-Qaida leader, al-Wahishi, in Yemen. I know that’s a different part of what the U.S. Government is focused on from what you’re doing directly, but if it were confirmed that he were dead, what could it mean to the overall fight against terrorism?

GEN ALLEN: Well, it’s two-fold. It’s a blow to al-Qaida. As the number two in al-Qaida, it just continues to reinforce the point that al-Qaida leadership will be at risk no matter where they are on the planet – that the United States is going to hunt you down, we’re going to deal with you.

But it’s also a blow to the organization, because as the number two he was a pretty important character. So they’ll elevate – I believe they already have, if the reports are true – that can be confirmed. We’ve seen some reporting that they’re talking about elevating someone into that position. He will of course immediately be subject to our attention. And so it’s both a blow to their reputation and it’s also a blow to their organization. And if those reports are true, then this is not an insignificant accomplishment, frankly.

QUESTION: General John Allen, we thank you very much for talking with us.

GEN ALLEN: It’s great to see you again, Judy. Thank you very much.