Interview With Quentin Sommerville, BBC

John Allen
Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL 
London, United Kingdom
September 13, 2015

BBC: General Allen, thanks very much for joining us today.

GENERAL ALLEN: Good to be with you Quentin.

BBC: You've had 6,700 airstrikes in the last year, thousands of American troops sent to Iraq. You've spend something like nine million dollars, six and a half million pounds per day in the fight against the Islamic State and all you've reached is a stalemate. Why is that?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I don't necessarily agree at all that it is a stalemate. Let me talk for a little bit about the strategy.

BBC: Sure.

GENERAL ALLEN: Because often it is the nature of the strategy and the complexity of the strategy that is lost in the conversation. When you use a figure like airstrikes it is only a part of a much broader, much larger approach to what we seek to accomplish with respect to -- and I'll use Daesh, because that's the term I typically use with regard to ISIL.

The strategy as we have both envisioned it and attempted to implement it covers basically five broad areas: the military strategy, which you have pointed to with your question and I'll come to that in a minute.

BBC: Yes.

GENERAL ALLEN: But also the effort to compete, to contest the information space against the toxic narrative of Daesh; to take those steps necessary at the international level, using the Coalition to limit its access to resources and to use those resources; to work to stem the flow of foreign fighters; and then to work on stabilization when the populations might be liberated in the course of the counteroffensive and our offensive action being able to quickly move in to stabilize the situation to take care of the population is also very important. But then within the broader strategy there is also the humanitarian dimension as well.

So the strategy is complex. It is one that has a military dimension to it, but it's not the only dimension. In fact, the military dimension sets us up in many respects to accomplish the strategy overall. The nature of the military dimension and your comment about airstrikes points to that – it is also complex. The airstrikes have been assisting both Iraqi and Syrian partners in beating back and dealing with Daesh. But we also have significant forces that have been stationed in five, what we call, Building Partner Capacity Camps. The UK has been helping us with training in that regard. In Erbil, and in Taji, Bismaya, in Taqaddum and in al-Asad —you were one of the first correspondents to get into al-Asad—and there our intent is to work closely with the Iraqi government and Iraqi Security Forces, to build capacity of both the Iraqi Security Forces but also tribal forces, in particular in Al Anbar, the Sunni province that's basically the western one-third of Iraq. To build the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces to take the fight back to Daesh. It's also important to understand that we have envisaged from the beginning that this was going to be a long-term struggle, multi-year. And in that context where we are today compared to where we were a year ago today is pretty dramatically different.

In the context of just governance alone in Iraq, we're dealing with a real partner in Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. And he's come a very long way in the year that he's been the prime minister, farther certainly than his predecessor had.

BBC: Still not far enough to be able to retake Ramadi in a matter of days as he said.

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, what we have to do is, of course, ensure that we've got the capacity to do that. And what we're doing is building that capacity for him.

What I don't want to do, Quentin, is hone in on one particular battle as you asked about the strategy. It's important that we think about the strategy overall and, yes, Ramadi was a setback and we acknowledge that and we're working very hard to build the forces that are capable of going in and taking Ramadi. Not only do we have the tactically forces arrayed to do that but we also have been able to do the planning for the stabilization as soon as that's done. The police are getting ready; the UN funding mechanism that will provide us very quick stabilization money to get essential services turned on. But I don't want to hone in on one particular battle.

Where we were last year at this time was the Kurdish regional government, the KRG, was threatened. Erbil was under pressure. Mosul had fallen and we were witnessing some of the most horrendous atrocities I think any of us had ever seen and some of us have seen some pretty bad things. It wasn't entirely clear that Iraq was going to hold together.

A year later, we have a functioning government—a truly functioning government—in Baghdad. [Inaudible] satisfied with the recent campaign that Prime Minister Abadi has initiated on countering corruption. It's being widely applauded across the entire Iraqi political firmament. And it's supported by His Eminence the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. And so there has been political progress. His outreach to the Sunnis and his outreach to the Sunni states in the region his predecessor could not have even begun to do those kinds of things.

On the ground, Tikrit has been retaken. 100,000 Tikritis have started to go home as a direct result of the stabilization efforts that the Coalition and the United Nations are helping the Iraqis to undertake. The Kurds have taken back all of the KRG that was lost and some more and they remain in the attack.

BBC: The difficulty for people looking at this campaign will be that here you are. You have some of the most sophisticated well-trained armies in the world...


BBC: part of this Coalition. You have a grip on the Islamic State that has been described as ragtag warriors who have managed to continually have that Coalition on the back foot. You mentioned Tikrit where there's been success, but there's been losses in Ramadi. Look at Palmyra. How can you tell people there that this is a success and that there has been progress in this war when they've lost territory? They've lost people and millions have had to flee their homes continually.

GENERAL ALLEN: Well the millions that are fleeing their homes are not just about Daesh. It's also about the conditions in the region. I think everyone would acknowledge that. It's the horrendous conditions that are a direct result of Bashar al-Assad and the several years of the civil war.

But you talk about Palmyra. Palmyra is a loss, and we're all extraordinarily sad over the human catastrophe that has occurred there, the catastrophe of the magnificence of the ruins of Palmyra.

But also in Syria—and you have been very close to this — a lot has been accomplished in the North. You were one of the first correspondents on the ground in Kobani. Kobani was a fight where the Kurds ultimately retained that city and pushed out and across the plains south of Kobani and took the district. And other Syrian elements with whom we're partnering now have pushed Daesh off the boarder now from the Iraqi-Kurdish border all the way to the Euphrates and deep into Syria, to the point where there are partners that we are supporting that are within 45 kilometers of Raqqa. That's not really well known, but it is a major increase of our capabilities there in Syria.

BBC: None of those are America or British or French troops on the ground. If you're talking about a multi-year war perhaps that lasts beyond a decade, how do you fight that war effectively without British or American or British combat troops on the ground?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think you have to make a decision early along in a crisis like this. You have to decide if you will fight this yourself or if you want the solution to the crisis to be in the hands of the indigenous forces themselves.

BBC: So that's the right decision. You're comfortable with the fact that American and British soldiers are not fighting on the ground in Syria and Iraq

GENERAL ALLEN: I've got a lot of experience dealing with indigenous forces and training indigenous forces. And while it's more difficult at the front end to build the capacities into them and to give them the leadership they need to integrate them into a planning process and a planning execution that gives them the capacity. While it's more difficult at the front end of this, it works out much better at the end. When Western forces insert themselves in large numbers and engage in high end combat operations in a region like that the outcome is almost always that you create as much instability as a result of that as you do accomplish your tactical objectives. So you have to be careful. You have to balance the two.

BBC: So you're saying never to American combat troops...

GENERAL ALLEN: No, what I'm saying is—

BBC: —to British combat troops—

GENERAL ALLEN: —that we have made the choice to try to empower the indigenous forces and to do it in a way with our troops on the ground who are trainers and who are advisors and who help to do the planning and help with the execution, to give them every capacity to do it themselves. We've had some setbacks. We certainly have. But we're in no position right now to say that this process isn't working.

BBC: Ok, let's talk about... You mentioned Kobani. It was amazing, Kobani. I've seen the devastation which saw off Daesh/ISIS, sent them into a retreat. America bombed the hell out of that place. Britain didn't do anything. Would Britain's support have helped or will it help in Syria? Do you need Britain to be involved in Syria?

GENERAL ALLEN: Look, I need for the United Kingdom to make those decisions themselves. We are in constant consultations.

BBC: They helped you when you were in Afghanistan.

GENERAL ALLEN: They're very helpful obviously in the campaign overall. The United Kingdom is providing leadership in a variety of areas. I went through the lines of effort a few moments ago. On countering their narrating; on countering finance; in leading countering the movement of foreign fighters, UK is playing a helpful role.

BBC: General Allen, it's not a controversial question. The Prime Minister David Cameron has said that there needs to be hard fighting in Syria. Would you welcome Britain's support?

GENERAL ALLEN: Of course we would, but it's a decision that the United Kingdom has to make.

BBC: And are you worried by the fact that there's now a leader of the opposition that says we should not get involved?

GENERAL ALLEN: The one thing I won't get involved in is British politics. So, I'd leave all that happily to you, Quentin.

BBC: I'm not going to press you. What if Britain doesn't get involved? Let's just for a second touch in Afghanistan. Hand in hand, the Deputy Commander was a Brit. There were British troops that were under your command.


BBC: What happens if Britain doesn't get involved in the fight against Islamic State. I don't just mean in Syria and in Iraq. We saw what happened in Tunisia where the Islamic State murdered British holiday makers on the beach. Was that a consequence of the lack of Britain's involvement in this battle?

GENERAL ALLEN: I don't believe you can say that. I don't think anyone can know. We have very deep and strong partnership with the United Kingdom. The United States and the United Kingdom. And Daesh is certainly center of mass in many of the things that we're dealing with together. But there are a lot of other threats that we're dealing with together and in a place like Tunisia or in a place like what's called the Khorasan province in the East, those are all areas where we will continue that partnership to work with those host nations that are suffering under that particular, in this case, Daesh as a threat, but other threats, where this is a value to our worldwide and global partnership which is a partnership that the world needs between the United States and the United Kingdom in helping those areas of the world to deal with those threats that they're having to face. And it's not just Daesh, it's other places and other threats as well.

BBC: In Syria people have suffered and been suffering there for years.

GENERAL ALLEN: Yes they have.

BBC: And they stuck it out; many have stuck it out for many years. Particularly with the threat of the Islamic State, it's too much. So they've left. And there are tens of thousands and they've come to Europe terrified, scared, looking for refuge. Do you feel responsible?

GENERAL ALLEN: I feel that we can help them. We've worked very hard to help in the humanitarian crisis in that region. The United States has been the largest donor just to the Syrians alone, $4 billion since 2011. I think we've been a factor in trying to reduce that humanitarian crisis. The UN has been very active. Your country has been very active and has made very generous donations. We've all tried to, but we must solve the conflict though. And the conflict must be solved both at a political level and a global level. So we're going to see that the manifestation of that conflict will play out in a number of ways. Right now it's playing out in this heart wrenching visage of the people who are streaming out of the region trying to find someplace where they can live.

BBC: General Allen, it's a catastrophe. We haven't seen anything like it since the Second World War. What can you do about it? What can you and your Coalition do about it?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well the Coalition has been doing something about it from the beginning. Remember the Coalition and the strategy has been in place for about a year. One of the aspects of it...

BBC: Still they keep coming. Tens of thousands every day to the shores of Europe.

GENERAL ALLEN: ...and we've got to resolve the conflict. We've got to resolve the fight. We have to resolve Daesh, but Daesh is a manifestation of a bigger issue. Daesh is a manifestation of an absence of hope for so many people. And individuals who fought on the side of Daesh believe they were ultimately going to accomplish an objective in that region - and that's a false objective. And the instability that has been created by Bashar al-Assad and that regime and his unwillingness to listen early in the Arab Spring to the voices of his people who just sought political change as so many others did, he ultimately chose to attack them and to make war upon his own people. And that ultimately created the crisis that we face today.

So it's not just, Quentin, about dealing with Daesh. It's about creating the conditions that ultimately put us on a path for a political, diplomatic solution as well. Bashar al-Assad has got to go. He is both the point and a representation of what has caused so much instability in the region and for so many people to want to fight -- to want to fight him and to fight each other until they can bring this crisis to a conclusion.

BBC: Let me ask you then, in that fight against Bashar al-Assad is Iran your friend or your foe?

GENERAL ALLEN: We don't support anyone who... We oppose anyone - we don't support anyone - who seeks to provide capacity to Bashar al-Assad ultimately.

BBC: But he's done a pretty good job of fighting the Islamic State, though.


BBC: In Iraq, for example.

GENERAL ALLEN: In Iraq they have fought the Islamic State with mixed results. But we don't coordinate with the Iranians. They're in the same battlespace with us, but we don't coordinate with them in Iraq.

BBC: And what about in Syria?

GENERAL ALLEN: We don't coordinate with them there either. But we provide support to the Syrian elements that are operating primarily in the North, and some in the South, to be able to defend themselves and ultimately to defend themselves against Daesh.

BBC: But isn't there some bizarre situation that in Iraq they're all around you and they're all around your allies. They're fighting in the same battles. You're tolerating them. Whereas in Syria they are allies of your avowed enemy Bashar al-Assad.

GENERAL ALLEN: It's a very complex situation, Quentin, and you know that. It's a very complex situation and each of those areas carries its own unique characteristics. Iraq has its own characteristics. Yemen has its own characteristics. We see echoes of some of the same factors in all of those. It's a very complex situation that we're going to have to not attempt by solving one by solving them all the same way.

BBC: It's just gotten more complex that situation. Russia is sending in combat troops. Could we be in a situation where Russian troops are fighting in Syria but American and British troops are not?

GENERAL ALLEN: That's a hypothetical question. We don't really know what the Russians are doing.

BBC: What do you think they're doing?

GENERAL ALLEN: We know that they're shipping in capability -- and whether that's capability just as they have done in the past to provide support to the Assad regime.

BBC: Do you think that? It seems a bit different this time.

GENERAL ALLEN: We're watching all of this very closely. We're watching and we'll keep a close eye. But we've made it very clear that we oppose any support to Assad that can help him to expand this conflict.

BBC: If you take a step back for a second, do you think the Islamic State could be capable of a 9/11 style attack? And if they are capable of that, would we be able to stop them?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, threat of course is the sum of capability and intention. I think there is no doubt that they would intend to bring some kind of a catastrophic attack to our homeland. Whether they have the capabilities remains to be determined. We of course are watching them very closely and we watch them in the theater. We watch them in their capacity to move between and among countries. And we'll also watch them closely as it relates to individuals who may be guided by their messages in our own homelands.

And there's a direct relationship between the activities that we take in Syria, for example, in attempting to pinpoint, locate, and eliminate those elements of the Daesh infrastructure that are seeking both to direct or inspire attacks in our homelands and we recently did that by taking out Junaid Hussein. We work then in the chain with countries along the way where people might be moving back and force to strengthen border controls and exchange information.

BBC: You're working with Britain on a kill list. Is there a kill list of targets?

GENERAL ALLEN: I'm not going to get into the operational details with you, Quentin.

BBC: But we know that British targets have been selected. We know that British citizens have been killed. That must have been done in coordination with the Americans.

GENERAL ALLEN: I'll leave those details for the United Kingdom to address, but I'm not going to do it here in this interview.

And then of course as it relates to the United States, we have worked very hard in the United States between the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Attorney General and the Department of Justice have dedicated enormous resources with our intelligence community. And our efforts overseas to do all that we can to attack the problem at its point—at the point of origin in Syria or Iraq—to wear it down as it might be coming at us and ultimately to defend our country at the borders. And that kind of consultation on counter-terrorism activities is a very broad and an important conversation that we have.

BBC: So it's a very real threat you're talking about here.

GENERAL ALLEN: We have to assume. We have to assume and we know that there have been attempts to inspire individuals within our populations to attack within the population or to attack our infrastructure. So we know that, and we have to organize with each other and organize inside our own countries to provide the kind of defense necessary to reduce to the maximum extent we can the possibility of a catastrophic attack.

BBC: You have to do more.

GENERAL ALLEN: I don't think we'll ever be satisfied that we've done enough. That's the important thing. That's the goal that we should have. If we wake up every morning wondering what more we can do to protect our people and our homelands, that's the best attitude to have.

BBC: General Allen there's one thing I want to ask you about and be specific. In Syria what's the next stage of the campaign against the Islamic State look like? Your training exercise of 54 men was an unmitigated disaster. It didn't last long. They were in there for about five minutes, most of them got kidnapped then they had to leave. So what do you do now?

GENERAL ALLEN: What we are doing now, and I described some of that to you a few minutes ago. That program—we learned a lot from that program and it's going to continue in perhaps different ways, but it's going to continue. We have a number that are already in training that have been in training for some time.

BBC: Still American-trained?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well we have Coalition partners helping us as well.

BBC: Such as?

GENERAL ALLEN: Turkey for example. We've paired with the Turks

BBC: What kind of numbers are we talking about?

GENERAL ALLEN: They're not very large but we anticipate that those could grow but the other - and you've got personal experience at this - groups that we have been working with: the Turkmen, the Syrians, the Kurds, and others they have been assisted. We have provided fire support to them and as you have seen Daesh has been driven off the Syrian border all the way to the Euphrates. There's only about 68 miles of that 900 miles border that still remains—

BBC: Half of them just retreated into Sunni areas.

GENERAL ALLEN: Let me finish because we've got some more work to do. We've got a lot of work in this regard. But in the course of that activity we closed Tal Abyad, one of the most important through-points for the flow of foreign fighters. That’s closed to them now and that's forced them to have to adjust and that gap from roughly Jarabulus, the West Bank of the Euphrates River to Kilis. It's a relatively small gap, and we're in consultation with groups about closing that gap. We're in consultation with groups about continuing to pressure Daesh. There is a lot more that we can do. I don't want to go into anymore of the operational detail but there's a lot more that we can do and there's been a lot that we have done along that Turkish-Syrian border. And we've learned a lot about these groups in doing that.

BBC: Isn't this frustrating for you? In Afghanistan, you had brigades and platoons to send in. F16s. You could send in Apaches. You had men at your disposal. If you wanted something done, you directed the troops. You can't do that anymore.

GENERAL ALLEN: Well no. I'm retired.

BBC: I don't mean you personally, General Allen.

GENERAL ALLEN: This goes back to my point I made earlier. When you want to deal with an issue like this, you have to make the decision relatively early in the process about whether you intend to use your own forces in this process to be high-end combat maneuver forces, or do you want to do all that you can to empower the indigenous forces who when they have solved the problem, have solved the problem forever.

BBC: It's their battle and they have to fight it.

GENERAL ALLEN: That's what we want and that's what we want to give them the capacity to do.

BBC: General Allen, thanks very much for your time this afternoon.

GENERAL ALLEN: Great to be with you again. Good to see you, Quentin. Thanks.