General Allen: Failure to address root causes of ISIS could “condemn” U.S. “to fight forever”
CNN’s Elise Labott sits down with General John Allen (Ret.), Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, to discuss the threat of ISIS in the Middle East and around the world.
MANDATORY CREDIT // Elise Labott/ Situation Room
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Gen. Allen on the possibility of long term fighting against ISIS: “If we don’t get at those issues over the long term, not just be compelled to constantly be fighting the symptoms of the problems, which is al Qaeda and which is Daesh — if we don’t get to the left of those symptoms and try to solve these underlying circumstances, working collaboratively with those who are in the region, who best understand the region, then we’re going to be condemned to fight forever.”
Gen. Allen explains the importance of military coalitions in the fight against ISIS: “So we, we’ve looked at the strategy in the context of empowering the indigenous forces and providing support to them, to isolate Daesh within the region, and to begin to bring pressure to bear in a global sense, in the context of its periphery and its functions and so on. And a year later we find Daesh shrunken significantly. We find that there has been about 14,000 or so Iraqis that have been trained, we have partners on the ground in Syria, we have the capacity to work much more closely with Turkey… We should not measure the contributions of the Arab nations solely on whether they’re flying missions over Syria. The Saudis for example have been very aggressive in providing support on a humanitarian level. In fact, they’ve given one of the largest single humanitarian contributions to, to help the people of Iraq and Syria, early along in the crisis.”
Gen. Allen on Russia’s growing presence in Syria: [LABOTT]: “Has Russian intervention made ISIS stronger?” [ALLEN]: “It certainly hasn’t hurt ISIS in my mind. We had hoped that when the Russians entered the fray that they would join us in attacking Daesh, and they have largely concentrated elsewhere…: I don’t know. I think we should look for every opportunity possibly that we can to engage the Russians in the broader conversation about the future of Syria. And that’s what happened just recently in Vienna. It’s going to happen again this weekend. The conversation ultimately needs to get us into a diplomatic political track, which includes the Syrians and all of the external players, to talk about how the process of succession will occur in Syria.”
Gen. Allen reacts to the idea of a no fly zone over Syria: [LABOTT]: “Is that a strategy that should be considered?” [ALLEN]: “Well, we should consider them. Now, whether we would ultimately adopt them or not — and it’s not just a no-fly zone, you know, place or a no-fly zone in — whether it’s on the air or on the ground, it’s also a matter of timing as well. And I have to tell you, because we have looked at this, that the — the intricacies and the complexities and the cost, frankly, in terms of resources, additional resources, of a no-fly zone or a safe zone are not insignificant. And the question then becomes what do we want to accomplish with them? And if the conditions are not suitable right now for what we might want to accomplish, then now is not the time to seriously consider it.”
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFIARS CORRESPONDENT: General Allen, thank you so much for joining CNN. We were here for your first interview when you came in and it’s an honor to talk to you as you’re leaving. So many years of service.
You spent the last year working on a strategy to combat ISIS. Talk about how it’s evolved and changed since you’ve started.
GEN. JOHN ALLEN, SPECIAL PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY FOR THE GLOBAL COALITION TO COUNTER ISIL: Sure.
Well, as you know, this time last year was a pretty dire moment for us. We had a sense of how we wanted to prosecute this campaign. We organized along lines of effort, brought together a coalition which was really only forming about now. And I think in that period of time we’d begun to see some real progress in the context of the state of Daesh as an entity in dealing with some of its characteristics with respect to its finances and the, the narrative. We’ve worked very hard to try to bring off the kinds of efforts to bring along the Iraqi security forces. That’d been our intent this time last year. So we, we’ve looked at the strategy in the context of empowering the indigenous forces and providing support to them, to isolate Daesh within the region, and to begin to bring pressure to bear in a global sense, in the context of its periphery and its functions and so on.
And a year later we find Daesh shrunken significantly. We find that there has been about 14,000 or so Iraqis that have been trained, we have partners on the ground in Syria, we have the capacity to work much more closely with Turkey. So in that space of a year we’ve seen real evolution. I think the one area where we obviously are very attentive now is the, the expansion of Daesh beyond the region. And we’re watching that very closely as well.
LABOTT: I definitely want to get to that…
LABOTT: …but let’s talk a little bit about the military coalition, Saudi Arabia, U.A., Bahrain, Qatar, have in essence all stopped flying missions, according to the New York Times. And we’re told that about 90 percent of the air strikes now are the U.S. If the Arab nations are not willing to be part of this military coalition, why should the U.S. be holding a bag here?
ALLEN: Well, I — we should not measure the contributions of the Arab nations solely on whether they’re flying missions over Syria. The Saudis for example have been very aggressive in providing support on a humanitarian level. In fact, they’ve given one of the largest single humanitarian contributions to, to help the people of Iraq and Syria, early along in the crisis. The Emiratis have been similarly generous, as have the, the Kuwaitis…
LABOTT: But you want to defeat this group.
ALLEN: Well, it’s — but it requires a global approach. So it’s not just humanitarian. The Saudis, the Emiratis are involved in the working groups within the coalition. They’re providing leadership there in terms of counter messaging. The, the Emirates have opened something called the Sawab Center, the Right Path Center, which within the region has helped us to put an Arab face on a Muslim voice on the messaging process. So the Arabs are involved in many ways within the coalition, and there’s Arab leadership within the coalition. I’d be careful about measuring the success based solely on numbers of air strikes in Syria.
LABOTT: Well, I mean, today Kurdish forces are retaking Sinjar with U.S. air strike assistance. Tell us about that.
ALLEN: Well, again, it’s another one of those moments a year later that’s really important to take stock of what’s happened. You’ll recall about this time last year we were all facing the horror of what was happening in the vicinity of Sinjar and to the Yazidi people. A year later Kurdish forces, some number of thousands of them, have launched into the attack to push Daesh out of that area, to cut route 47, which is the principal east-west running line of communication between Mosul and Raqqa, and that’s a very important development. And it continues to indicate how, with the coalition air power, American advice, coalition advice, partners like the Peshmerga, and other elements within those formations are able to make real ground.
LABOTT: But it seems as if the Peshmerga right now are your most reliable, the Kurds are your most reliable partners right now. Why are we not arming them directly?
ALLEN: Well, they are being armed.
LABOTT: Not directly by the U.S.
ALLEN: Well, they’re being — they have been armed. Fourteen nations have been providing support to them. And one of the reasons we came to Iraq, one of the reasons we committed ourselves, was to restore the territorial integrity of Iraq and the sovereignty of the Iraqi government over all of Iraq. And so while we may not be directly providing them assistance, the idea that the assistance flows through Bagdad, where it goes through a very quick customs check and moves very quickly to the KRG, is something that has both provided for the support for the Kurds, but also has reinforced the nature of the sovereignty of the Iraqi government. That’s, that’s inherently the reason that we’re operating this way.
LABOTT: You have Pentagon announcing that Special Forces will be going in to assist the Kurds. It looks as if the U.S. is getting more military entrenched in the conflict. Is this mission creep?
ALLEN: No, I don’t think so. This is a — this decision has been under consideration for some time. And I, I would say that we should view this as the right kind of next step for us to be connected to those groups on the ground that we have provided support to, vetted groups that have been successful on the ground. This provides us the capacity to advise the forward, it provides them connectivity back into our own support system, and that’s the role they’ll play. They will not be in combat with these groups.
LABOTT: Do you envision that that might be a possibility at some point? Someone like Adam Schiff on the Senate Intelligence Committee said, unless you see more combat troops on the ground, we could be looking at this conflict for 15 years.
ALLEN: Well, I’m not going to assign a timeline to it, and I’m not going to…
LABOTT: Well, what about U.S. combat troops? Is that an inevitability?
ALLEN: No, I don’t think so at all. We made the decision early along in the process, the President made the decision, that we could go one of two ways on this. And one is to put large numbers of American combat forces, or coalition combat forces, on the ground with the real potential that that presence is going to be very difficult to un-entangle at some point, creating a large numbers of antibodies (ph) in a region that’s really unstable in many respects. Or we could do what we could to empower the indigenous forces, which another way of getting at this. And that process has been unfolding for a year. The large numbers of Iraqis have been trained, we’re working very closely with the Syrian opposition elements, and they’re gaining ground. They’re beginning to have an effect. And I think the difference between the two is you, you might feel more satisfied at the front end because American combat forces were deeply engaged in this, but let’s remember that in Iraq we were there for eight years. That took a long time against a force less capable than Daesh. We’ve spent the resources early in the process to get the indigenous force to be the solution. And in the end, it’s much easier for them to be the solution to this, to this crisis than for us to be the solution.
LABOTT: It’s pretty clear that air strikes have not put a dent in ISIS’ ability to recruit, to spread its ideology, to have lone wolf attacks around the world inspired by ISIS. Now one of their provinces in the Sinai has claimed credit with reliable reporting from the U.S. that this could be a major attack on an international target. So the global appeal doesn’t seem to be waning. In fact, it really is morphing into a global organization.
ALLEN: We need to watch that closely, and I think we, we have turned a lot of attention to that over the last several months. You’ll remember when we committed ourselves ultimately to deal with this initially, it was an ISIL that was largely contained within Iraq and Syria. In the aftermath of that containment or that commitment, other organizations around the world put their hands in the air to join the, the so-called caliphate. Couple of things I think we need to recognize. Many of these organizations already existed. Many of these organizations sought to have a relationship with (INAUDIBLE)…
LABOTT: Do they have command and control now of these (INAUDIBLE)…?
ALLEN: Well, that’s a good question, and that’s, that’s something over which we have a lot of interest. But what’s important to understand is part of the reason that Daesh was attractive to them was the sense of inevitability of this organization and invincibility. And I believe that over the last year we have both proven that they are not inevitable and certainly not invincible.
LABOTT: But you see Al-Qaeda, you know, that core in Afghanistan and Pakistan, kind of wane, but some of these affiliate grew even more powerful. Which ones right now are you looking at that concern you the most?
ALLEN: Well, we’re going to watch very closely the one in Libya. We’re attentive to the organization in the Sinai. Clearly the one in the North Caucasus is going to be a problem that the Russians are going to have to deal with for some period of time. The, the organization — and it’s difficult necessarily to determine what the boundaries are, but the organization that is emerging probably in Yemen and potentially across the Arabian Peninsula, we’ll watch that closely. And then this province that is called the so-called Khorasan, which is the traditional region across Afghanistan and Pakistan. So we’re going to watch those very closely.
LABOTT: Does this become a global military campaign?
ALLEN: I don’t think so.
LABOTT: What is the coalition going to do to combat these?
ALLEN: Well, it’s not just the coalition, of course, but it’ll be how the United States views this. And I think it’s important to understand that we see that the platform that gives form to what would appear to be an expansion is that aspect of Daesh that we call the core. And that’s in Afghanistan — sorry, that is in Iraq and Syria. And the coalition is going to remain focused on that, we’re going to bear down hard on that. Because by defeating it, by shrinking it, by reducing its attractiveness, then we can have the effect of making them less well-connected to the provinces. And then we have the provinces.
LABOTT: Which seem to be more dangerous right now.
ALLEN: Well, the provinces are. But Boko Haram for example has been shrunk by virtue of the way we’re going to approach this, which is bilaterally with some of these countries. Building capacity, sharing information, helping them in a counter-terrorism sense, multi-laterally in a region, or regionally. That’s what we found in Boko Haram.
LABOTT: Which is the biggest threat to the homeland, U.S. homeland?
ALLEN: I, I can’t answer that in the context of the provinces. We’re taking it all very seriously. And I wanted to make the other point that we have the distant provinces, as they’re called by Daesh, we have the core element, and then the network which connects them is really important to us. And understanding that network in the context of whether Daesh is able to extend command and control, or shift resources, or move fighters, or share the narrative, all of that constitutes the, this expansion. And we want to address each part of it. Bear down hard on the center, bear down hard on the core with the coalition, work regionally bilaterally or multi-laterally against the individual provinces, and then understand the network in the context of where there are vulnerabilities in the network that can be taken down to either collapse the network or corrupt the network.
LABOTT: Let’s talk about the train and equip program, you know, not obviously has been canceled. Five hundred million set aside over time, and only four fully trained, program canceled. Why did they fail?
ALLEN: Well, in the end there were more than four. I don’t know the number specifically and we can direct that to Defense. Because others were in the training pipeline, they completed it, and they’re now in the…
LABOTT: Not at the numbers that we wanted.
ALLEN: No, not that we intended. And…
ALLEN: Well, I think the difficulty of course is when you want individuals to concentrate on Daesh on a day-to-day basis or a moment-to-moment basis, or worrying about whether the regime is going to blow up their neighborhood, or the future of the Assad regime, that’s a difficult challenge and a difficult choice to put forth.
But I think very importantly we chose to adapt the program, not stop the program. And the adaptation of that program has been important. And that adaptation has permitted us to reach out to vetted groups that have been successful. We learned about them at Kobane. We saw these groups ultimately begin to emerge as a direct result of the defense of Kobane. And supporting them, we have seen the recovery of the Syrian-Turkish border all the way from Iraq to the Euphrates, we closed Tal Abyad, which was the principle crossing point for Daesh. Some of those elements are pushing well to the south now towards Raqqa, and we have, we have elements right now that we’ve been resupply recently that have pushed south of Hassakeh and in Syria are cutting the same road network that we’re cutting right now in Iraq.
LABOTT: Are you going to owe them at some point? I mean are you really going to be able to get them to finish the job against ISIS if you don’t support them helping get rid of Assad?
ALLEN: No, it’s not a matter of helping militarily to support getting rid of Assad. What we hope to do is first deal with Daesh, we have to do that. We have to create and…
LABOTT: Are you ever going to do that without — are you ever going to do that, defeat Daesh without — with Assad in power?
ALLEN: Well, that’s the problem. And that’s one of the difficulties that we face because the argument can be made that Daesh has achieved much of its capacity today because of the Assad regime and his unwillingness in the spring of 2011 to listen to those young Syrian voices that were calling for reform.
He didn’t listen to them; he attacked them. And it set off a sequence of events that delivers us to this moment.
And so part of what we have to do is square the strategy to deal with Daesh, and our policy objective, which is to rid of the body politic of Syria of Assad, but turn over that body ultimately to the Syrians. The connection of those two is how we support the Syrians in this process. And that’s just beginning to unfold here.
LABOTT: Has Russian intervention made ISIS stronger?
ALLEN: It certainly hasn’t hurt ISIS in my mind. We had hoped that when the Russians entered the fray that they would join us in attacking Daesh, and they have largely concentrated elsewhere.
LABOTT: Will Metrojet change that?
LABOTT: Will this Metrojet crash change that? Does it open up an opportunity?
ALLEN: I don’t know. I think we should look for every opportunity possibly that we can to engage the Russians in the broader conversation about the future of Syria. And that’s what happened just recently in Vienna. It’s going to happen again this weekend.
The conversation ultimately needs to get us into a diplomatic political track, which includes the Syrians and all of the external players, to talk about how the process of succession will occur in Syria.
LABOTT: In the mean —
ALLEN: We hope the Russians will join us in that.
LABOTT: In the meantime, many of the presidential candidates, including former Secretary of State Clinton, now call for a no-fly zone. Is that a strategy that should be considered? Not only to protect civilians but also to put the pressure on the Russians here.
ALLEN: We should consider all the measures that are —
LABOTT: Including a no-fly zone?
ALLEN: Well, we should consider them. Now, whether we would ultimately adopt them or not — and it’s not just a no-fly zone, you know, place or a no-fly zone in — whether it’s on the air or on the ground, it’s also a matter of timing as well. And I have to tell you, because we have looked at this, that the — the intricacies and the complexities and the cost, frankly, in terms of resources, additional resources, of a no-fly zone or a safe zone are not insignificant.
And the question then becomes what do we want to accomplish with them? And if the conditions are not suitable right now for what we might want to accomplish, then now is not the time to seriously consider it.
LABOTT: When you first took this job, when we first sat down, you said this conflict is going to be long. It’s going to be years. How many more people are going to occupy this chair, do you think, before the job is done?
ALLEN: Well, my hope is maybe one.
LABOTT: Is that realistic?
ALLEN: No, I think we’re going to be at this for some time. And — whether we need someone that fulfills my duties or not is — remains to be determined. But I still, as I said that day a long time ago when you and I sat down for the first time, I still believe this is going to be a long conflict. Some aspects of it could be quite long. The whole idea of the ideology and the residue of Daesh once we have really begun to shrunk it into inconsequence.
LABOTT: A year ago, I asked you what the end game was. You said a territorially intact and sovereign Iraq governed by an inclusive government, and in Syria, building capacity within the Syrian opposition to defend themselves against Assad and terrorists and become politically unified.
How far are you to be reaching that end game? Some people would say there’s still no end game here.
ALLEN: Well, I think those ambitions, those end states, are still credible. We’re farther along in terms of where we are in Iraq. Look at what the Kurds are doing today as an example of enhanced capacity. The Kurds have recovered all their ground, and now they’re moving out to cut Sinjar. We’re isolating Mosul even more. Tikrit in that period of time has been relieved.
LABOTT: How — a dam’s on Mosul, though. That’s going to be a while, right?
ALLEN: Well, it’s going to be. Well, that’s right and we’ll do it when we’re ready — we being the Iraqis and our — and their allies, us the coalition. So when they are ready and the conditions are set, then Mosul will go.
But Tikrit has been liberated, 75 percent of the population has gone home, well over 100,000 individuals. Baiji has been liberated. Ramadi is under pressure. The training of the Iraqi security forces have produced over 14,000 individuals. Tribal elements are coming forward. So we’re moving forward in that regard.
In Syria, we’ve got options now that I couldn’t have envisioned when we — when you and I had that conversation last year. We’re flying off bases in (INAUDIBLE) for now, but bases potentially in Turkey. We’re going to work with the Turks and the Syrian Arab elements to close the remainder of the border. We intend to threaten Raqqa. We’re already — we’ve already moved south of Al Hal (ph). A diplomatic political process that was for all intents and purposes impossible for us to contemplate this time last year has already had one iteration in Vienna and is about to have a second iteration.
So I think the objectives are still reasonable. They still are the objectives that we would like to achieve. And we’ve moved a long way in that direction in the space of just a year.
LABOTT: Still have a way to go.
ALLEN: Oh, sure. Of course. This is going to be difficult. It’s going to be complex. But in part the kinds of pressure that we’re bearing to bear on that.
LABOTT: General, as you step down after more than 40 years in the military and in public —
ALLEN: That makes me feel old.
LABOTT: Well, you started when you were like, what? Fifteen?
LABOTT: As you step down, in the two wars that you most recently had a leadership role in, they’re still ongoing. Since you’ve left the battlefield some would argue even worse — fourteen years after Afghanistan, the Taliban is thriving. Twelve years after the invasion of Iraq, the borders between Iraq and Syria are in effect gone right now and a terror group is running the area.
What lesson has the U.S. not learned about this region? And how do you learn that lesson to be able to finish the job now?
ALLEN: I think the lesson — the lesson that the U.S. has learned, in fact, is the emphasis that’s been put on this in the last year, and that is that solving in a comprehensive and in a collaborative way with our partners these underlying social, economic, and political subcurrents, that the underlying causes which take hope from large segments of the population, that give large elements within countries no access to the institutions of government, no hope for a decent job, no way to bring their children up, no hope for education. Getting to the far left of the point of radicalization, which we’re living with every day. That’s why we’re fighting. We’re fighting with a radicalization, an environment where people can be easily radicalized, become extremists, and ultimately join a terrorist group.
We’ve got to get to the left of that. And what we have learned, and what the United States has sought to do in the last year, is to empower and work collaboratively with many of our partners to counter the violent extremism that has created al Qaeda or Daesh or —
LABOTT: But do we really understand this region? If the — does the U.S. really understand this region if these terror groups are allowed to flourish?
ALLEN: Sure. Nobody understands this region better than the people in this region, and by working closely with them to try to get at these underlying conditions, these conditions which ultimately create the emergence of these groups. If we don’t get at those issues over the long term, not just be compelled to constantly be fighting the symptoms of the problems, which is al Qaeda and which is Daesh — if we don’t get to the left of those symptoms and try to solve these underlying circumstances, working collaboratively with those who are in the region, who best understand the region, then we’re going to be condemned to fight forever.
And I think that’s been the great lesson the United States has attempted to apply in this last year. The whole emphasis on the countering of violent extremism works hand in glove with what we’re doing to fight Daesh today, because we’re dealing with the outcome of an absence of that kind of commitment. So what we’re hoping to do, ultimately, is to be able to combine the efforts to counter violent extremism with our efforts to deal with Daesh as a terrorist group and as a syndicate.
LABOTT: Obviously you’re going to look to spend more time with your family and —
ALLEN: I am.
LABOTT: — entering a new phase, but what are you going to miss?
ALLEN: You know, I thought about this a lot since I retired from the military and, you know, I spent some time working Middle East peace issues and now this. I will miss the day to day contact with the people. Of course the magnificent troops that we have in uniform; I think about them every time we have a moment like Veterans Day. And the casualties that I would ultimately have to deal with in my command. I think about them.
I think about those with whom we’ve worked with in the coalition, tribes and the dedication that they have given to us, and the great friendships that we have made with them. And partners within the region and around the world within the coalition.
I’ll think about the people with whom I’ve dealt in this building for the last year and how incredibly important our diplomats are and the people within the State Department.
And I’m going to miss the people. And, you know, we hear people all the time talk about thanking our troops for what they’re doing, and I’m going to ask the American people to thank our diplomats. Those folks who every single day are putting their lives at risk at our diplomatic posts around the world as well.
So the institutions will take care of themselves. They’ll continue to operate. But these institutions, these great American institutions, are who they are — are what they are because of the great Americans in them, and I’ll miss them.
LABOTT: Are we going to see you again in public service?
ALLEN: I don’t know. I’m going to —
LABOTT: Presidential run for instance?
ALLEN: Not for me!
LABOTT: Secretary of Defense?
ALLEN: I will go home to Virginia and spend time looking forward to dealing with the Brookings Institute.
LABOTT: But if you get the call?
ALLEN: I’ve told the President the United States that I will always serve him, and just as I did with John Kerry. If — I’ll come off the bench if they need the help.
LABOTT: General Allen, thank you for sitting with us and thank you for all your service and everything you’ve done —
ALLEN: Thank you, Elise.
LABOTT: — for this country.
ALLEN: Great to be with you again, one year later.
LABOTT: Thank you.
ALLEN: My pleasure.