Interview With Martha Raddatz of ABC News

John Allen
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL 
Washington, DC
September 11, 2015

QUESTION: I actually want to start with you because it is 9/11 today --


QUESTION: -- and today, just your memories of that day, and here we are 14 years later.

GENERAL ALLEN: Right. Well, I was a deputy commandant of midshipmen at the Naval Academy. I was in a meeting. Someone walked in the room and said, “We’ve just learned that an aircraft has crashed into one of the towers in the World Trade Center in New York.” A few minutes later, the second crash occurred and we knew that our lives were going to be different forever – really going to be changed.

So we watched the towers collapse. We took the reports of the impact to the Pentagon. We began to mobilize our medical capacity at Annapolis and send it here, send it to Washington to help. And I knew at that point that in the years to come I would not just be trying to educate midshipmen, I would ultimately be leading them in the war that would follow. And then ten years to the day after that, I would find myself addressing my troops as the commander in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: And today, when we look at the world, we see this terrible, terrible refugee crisis.


QUESTION: When you look at those streams of refugees, when you look at the powerful photo that has gone around the world of the young boy – and I know you have a young grandson --


QUESTION: -- what do you think and what responsibility do you (inaudible)?

GENERAL ALLEN: My heart goes out to all of them immediately. My prayers are with all of them that they’ll find security and safe haven wherever their travels will take them, that we as a community of nations will have the compassion to take them in and to care for them and to help them to solve this emergency.

But I also, by virtue of the job that I have today, recognize that we have a responsibility that we have shouldered to deal with the root causes of much of this humanitarian crisis, which is the crisis in the Middle East, whether it’s the Syrian civil war or the emergence of this organization that we call ISIL or Daesh. And that’s what goes through my mind.

QUESTION: And yet here we are and you’ve been dealing this – with this a long time. I know you have said it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be fast, but are we today at a place where you thought we would be?

GENERAL ALLEN: As I said when I took this job, this was going to be a long-term endeavor. It’s going to be a multiyear effort. And where we were a year ago today, I wasn’t sure how it was going to unfold, to be quite honest with you. We were facing some real uphill battles, some real difficult moments. Mosul had fallen and we were witness to atrocities the like of which we had never seen before. The Iraqi Security Forces were being defeated. Daesh had turned on the Kurds. They had scattered and enslaved large segments of the Yezidi population. Much of the border of Syria and Turkey had now disappeared into their control. It was not clear to me even that Iraq would survive this a year ago today.

In the intervening months, we’ve seen remarkable progress in many respects. We’ve seen the emergence of a capable leader and a partner in Baghdad in the form of Haider al-Abadi. He’s just finished his first year in office. Between his national program, his outreach to the Sunnis, his plan for al-Anbar, his outreach to the region, his close relationship with His Eminence the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, we find in him a hope for a political future in Iraq that we couldn’t have seen under other leadership and we haven’t seen before. Without a political platform, without a political resolution of this conflict, no matter what we do militarily, we’ll not solve this crisis overall.

We’ve seen a Coalition come into existence in the intervening months between those days and today – a Coalition that has worked very hard to stem the flow of foreign fighters, to impede the finances of Daesh as they have attempted to support their operations in Iraq and Syria; that has sought to compete with the message of hate and the toxic ideology that Daesh has had; and also to deal with the humanitarian crisis. And then we’ve seen the military aspects of what’s been undertaken. We’ve been working very hard to recover and to retrain and to commit the Iraqi Security Forces – about 12,000 have been trained, 3,500 more are in the hopper, about 2,000 more are in the field. The Kurds have recovered all the ground that was lost in the north, and they’re continuing to attack and they’re continuing to have effect.

QUESTION: And yet Mosul is still controlled by ISIS.

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, let --

QUESTION: Fallujah is still controlled by ISIS.

GENERAL ALLEN: You’re exactly correct, and we’re not done. There’s much work to be done. This goes to the long-term nature of this conflict and the fact that we’re working very hard to empower the Iraqi Security Forces to do this, and the tribal elements as well – not just the army, not just the counterterrorism service, but the tribes and the police as well. But we’ve had some real successes. Tikrit was taken back by Iraqi Security Forces. Tikritis are returning home. You were there; you actually saw the fight unfold.

And in Syria, that place called Kobani where we thought we would see another horrendous massacre occur, brave defenders supported by the Coalition ultimately held the city and branched out later to take not just the district, but most of the Iraqi – or most of the Syrian and Turkish border is now in the hands of folks that we’re supporting. They’ve pushed Daesh well off that border and closed the principal crossing point from Turkey into Syria.

QUESTION: Let’s talk about Kobani. Kobani remains desolate, dangerous – 70 percent of the city destroyed before the U.S. airstrikes – and many of those refugees, including that three-year-old boy, his brother and mother were from Kobani. They can’t go back. They’re fleeing.

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, the intent, of course, is to create the humanitarian conditions where they can go back to rebuild the city, and that process is underway. And sadly, of course, many of the young individuals who had intended to go back to improve the life in Kobani were killed in that terrorist attack in Suruc that prevented them from doing that. But it is the intent both in terms of the Turks in providing the capacity for that to occur, and the Coalition and our international partners to do all that we can to support the population’s return to Kobani and other places that have been devastated by ISIL’s activities.

QUESTION: I want to go back to the refugees again --


QUESTION: -- and I want to talk about Syria. You look at Iraq and you talked about Iraq and you talked about the progress and you talk about Kobani. According to the Institute for the Study of War, ISIS controls more territory now than this time last year in Syria, reports they just took a key air base in the east, they seized Assad’s last oil field: 330,000 dead, 4 million refugees, four and a half years of war. Syria looks worse to most people, especially when they see those lines of refugees.

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, Syria, of course, is one of the reasons that we have this humanitarian capacity – humanitarian catastrophe in the region and the lack of capacity to deal with those numbers. The United States, prominent among the international community, has donated over $4 billion to the relief of refugees in that region, in particular into Syria. Other members of the Coalition, other international partners have donated a great deal of money.

QUESTION: Give me your assessment of Syria right now.


QUESTION: Your honest assessment. You were such a loud voice to get in, to do something about ISIS in Iraq especially, but Syria is still such a huge problem.

GENERAL ALLEN: And we know that, and the efforts that we’re undertaking in Syria to deal with Daesh I think have paid off in many respects. And the Institute for the Study of War is an outstanding organization, and in fact, we get a lot of help from them sometimes in the work that we do. But there has been enormous progress in pushing Daesh off the border of Syria and Turkey, ultimately to close that border to prevent the flow of foreign fighters to support Daesh. We’ve got people that we support who are within 45 kilometers of Raqqa – we couldn’t have imagined that just six months ago – threatening the center of gravity.


GENERAL ALLEN: But this is an important point. Syria is never going to be solved militarily. Syria has got to be solved at a political level. Syria has got to have a political transition away from Bashar al-Assad. He can’t be part of the solution. And so we have to be in constant conversation with our international partners and ultimately with the opposition elements in Syria to effect that transition. Because the expanding or supporting the fight on the ground just increases the violence and it increases the conflict, and then it increases the refugee and humanitarian catastrophe that we face.

QUESTION: A lot of the refugees are saying it’s not ISIS; it’s Assad’s forces --

GENERAL ALLEN: It is, it is.

QUESTION: -- that they are fleeing.


QUESTION: So would you like or would you recommend that we start focusing on Assad’s forces?

GENERAL ALLEN: What I recommend is that we focus on a political transition that removes Assad and removes the leadership and the manner in which he has led this conflict. Back in 2011 when the Arab Spring had such promise in many countries, it had great promise in Syria. But he chose, rather than to listen to the dissidents, he chose to attack them. And that created a sequence of events that has delivered us to where we are today.

QUESTION: 2011 is when President Obama said he had to go. He has not. He has not gone. There has not been a political solution and it’s getting worse for the people who live there. It’s getting worse for the refugees.

GENERAL ALLEN: And we’ll work very hard to try to have that political solution and we’ll continue to work with our external partners. In the meantime, we’ll support those elements within the Iraqi – within the Syrian population which can ultimately win back the ground on which they can create some modicum of control then, and hopefully, by empowering them enough either militarily or politically, have them be a voice at the table when the times comes ultimately for the political transition to begin.

QUESTION: We’ve had about 6,700, I think, Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, about 2,200, I think, in Syria. Is that enough? We’re clearly not using the full force of our airpower capabilities. Why not?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I’d leave that to the military ultimately to make that judgment, and to the very capable commanders and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I’d have them make that comment. But we are supporting those elements that are accomplishing significant progress in the battle space in Syria, and we’re providing significant support to the Syrian – to the Iraqi Security Forces on the field in both al-Anbar province and Salah ad Din. But I would leave the numbers and the quantities of airstrikes, I would leave that judgment ultimately to the military.

QUESTION: This week there were reports that ISIS is using crude chemical weapons. Have you seen reports of that?

GENERAL ALLEN: We’ve seen reports of it, but we’re obviously looking for the analysis on it so that we can understand both the sources – if, in fact, it’s true – the sources of the chemicals, how they’re produced, how they’re moved, how they could be employed. It’s very important for us to understand that.


GENERAL ALLEN: But I’ve not seen reports of the conclusions.

QUESTION: And I know you can’t discuss an IG report that’s going on right now, but the Senate also wants to take up the question of whether the intelligence coming out of particularly Central Command is good intelligence, if they’re over-inflating the progress. Do you feel you’re getting the best intelligence?

GENERAL ALLEN: I get my information from a lot of sources – from across the intelligence community, from the diplomatic community, from contacts in the region, from great organizations that are studying this. You mentioned one a few minutes ago, the Institute for the Study of War. I get my information from a lot of different products and subjects, but I’m not going to comment on the need for an investigation or the progress of an investigation.

QUESTION: And the Russians (inaudible) buildup there – several aircraft. And can you just give us the latest on what the Russians are up to and what that will mean?

GENERAL ALLEN: We’ll watch the developments. We’ll watch what they’re doing. I don’t want to speculate right now because we haven’t seen the full deployment go in. And we’ve said all along that we welcome the constructive contributions of many partners around the world, and we would welcome that constructive contribution from the Russians as well. What we would oppose, though, is any addition or any support to the Assad regime that expands or accelerates the conflict.

QUESTION: Does it appear at this point they’re trying to build an air hub?

GENERAL ALLEN: It’s too early for me to speculate on that.

QUESTION: But definitely aircraft there.

GENERAL ALLEN: I’ve not seen that.

QUESTION: You haven’t seen any Russian aircraft there in Syria?

GENERAL ALLEN: I have not seen that.

QUESTION: I want to go back to the training and the training of the moderate Syrian rebels. And I think the first 50-something were devastated, were killed, and the training clearly did not go the way you wanted it to go. What are your lessons learned? What do you do different?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, the Department of Defense is embracing what has been learned from this, and I will leave it for them to comment on the specifics associated with that. But we remain wedded to the principle that by empowering moderate Syrian or those reliable Syrian elements, vetted Syrian elements that we can partner with, that we can accomplish our objectives on the ground, which is ultimately to degrade and to defeat Daesh. So we did learn from that. We’ll apply those lessons in the future.

But it’s important to recognize that we’ve also worked closely with other opposition elements on the ground, and I think I’ve already described some of that. The preponderance of the Syrian-Turkish border has been taken back from Daesh, and Daesh has been pushed well off of that border. We’ve closed the principal crossing point at Tal Abyad and we have elements of those forces within 45 kilometers of Raqqa. So we have seen a good example of when we can enable and empower those elements that are ready to fight. We’ll support them fighting.

QUESTION: I want to go back to the refugees just one more time. And we have heard from people on the Hill – you know ISIS, you know Daesh, you know their capabilities. We have heard from some on the Hill who say there is a potential jihadi pipeline if we bring these refugees in quickly, if we bring these people who are fleeing Syria in quickly, and cause a national security threat. Do you agree?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think we should watch it. We should be conscious of the potential that Daesh may attempt to embed agents within that population; but I also have to tell you I have tremendous confidence in the work that has been and is being done by Director Comey with the FBI and with Secretary Johnson in the federal bureau – or with the director who’s the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Attorney General and the Department of Justice. They’ve done tremendous work in protecting us domestically. And as I have watched their efforts unfold and as we would see the potential for infiltrators to be in these refugee columns, I have confidence that they’ll work very, very hard to prevent them from getting into the country.

QUESTION: Is it a potential national security threat?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think it’s a threat. We need to understand the totality of it, I think, before we could brand it a national security threat. But it’s clearly something we should be thinking about, and I have great confidence, frankly, in the director of the FBI and Secretary Johnson to be thinking in those terms.

QUESTION: And just a final question. Again we hear this week on the anniversary of 9/11 you have been looking at ISIS and the threat they pose. Does ISIS pose a threat to the homeland as we sit here?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think we should take that threat very seriously. And I’ve just explained that certainly the director of the FBI takes that threat very seriously and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security takes that threat very seriously, the Attorney General takes that threat very seriously. So we should, and we should take those measures necessary in every possible way that we can to prevent that threat from being fulfilled.

QUESTION: And we look at the threat different ways. There’s the lone wolf. There’s someone who’s been inspired by ISIS.

GENERAL ALLEN: Sure, sure.

QUESTION: Do you think ISIS as an organization has the capability to carry out a catastrophic attack on the U.S.?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think it may be their aspiration to attack the United States, either, as you said, by inspired attacks or direct attacks. But I have, again, confidence that we’re going to work very hard to try to understand that plan from a distance. As you probably are well aware, we just attacked and eliminated Junaid Hussein, who was one of the principal hubs within Daesh that has been attempting to facilitate those kinds of attacks on the homelands of the Coalition. And by eliminating him we have been able to disrupt the front of the pipeline on how that attack might be planned and carried out. We’ll continue to rely on the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to be that element within the United States to protect us domestically from the fulfillment of that threat. So we’re going to attack that potential challenge across this entire pipeline, from where it originates all the way to conceivably where it might be fulfilled. And I think it’s getting a lot of attention and a lot of resources to protect the American people.

QUESTION: Where do you think we’ll be a year from today in Iraq and Syria?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think we’ll see a continued evolution of political stability in the government of Haider al-Abadi. I think we’ll see continued tactical developments that will increase the stability of those areas where Daesh had held sway. We’re already beginning to see with the return of somewhere around 100,000 families or people back to Tikrit. We’re beginning to see the outcome of liberated areas. So we’ll see more of Iraq back in the hands of Iraqi authorities. We’ll see populations going home. And I think we’ll see the continuation of the fulfillment of the strategy.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, General Allen