General John R. Allen USMC (Ret), who served as the top United States commander in Afghanistan, has been appointed as President Obama’s Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. General Allen will conduct several trips to the region in order to consolidate the coalition that is beginning to come together and to strengthen and clarify the lines of effort. In a recent interview with CNN’s Elise Labott, General Allen responded to a series of pressing questions regarding the US’s strategy to degrade, defeat, and destroy ISIS.
General Allen is one of many officials within the US and International communities that are continuing to emphasize that a military solution must be balanced by other counter-ISIS measures.
What’s important to understand is that there are several other lines as well. It’s the line that represses the flow of foreign fighters; it’s the line that deals with disrupting the revenue generation capabilities and the criminal, illicit activities of ISIL; it’s the important line of developing the humanitarian capacity to provide for the populations, ultimately, as ISIL is diminished and defeated; and very importantly, it’s the line that creates the de-legitimization of ISIL as a group and the idea of ISIL across the region.
Responding to Labott’s question regarding how the United States will address some of the coalition member’s converging views and competing priorities, Allen optimistically noted that “this is an opportunity – it’s actually an important moment where so many countries from so many different backgrounds share that view” and are united under the common banner of countering ISIS. As Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum stated, “In today’s crisis of extremism, we must recognise that we are just as interdependent for our security, as is clear in the current struggle to defeat ISIS.” They understand that ISIS is a threat to regional and global security and they are willing to partner with other countries to eradicate this menace.
ISIS is not a one-sided threat. General Allen emphasized that ISIS is dynamic, and “operates in about three spheres,” the physical sphere, the information sphere, and the financial sphere. To degrade, defeat, and destroy ISIS through President Obama’s five lines of operations, thus involves a dynamic solution. The US will “dismantle ISIS in a credible physical way in the physical sphere” and “compete with them in the information sphere.” The US will deny ISIS “the oxygen that comes from their illicit finance and revenue activities” and “ultimately deny them the credibility of their message and the legitimacy of their movement.”
The issue of US boots on the ground lingers as one potential option in the effort to counter ISIS. However, in light of his extensive experience training indigenous forces in Afghanistan, Allen is optimistic that “with the right kind of training infrastructure and the right kind of forces” US forces will not be necessary.
General Allen further underscored the importance of managing our expectations. He emphasizes that the coalition is still emerging from its roots. It is an ongoing conversation which is continuing to devise a broader strategy to address the regions problems, especially with regards to the coalition’s end goal in Syria. Allen also stressed that training the Syrian rebels will not happen overnight. He stated that “in the end in Syria” the US wants to “prepare the moderate Syrian opposition elements to be both credible politically and credible militarily so that they are a shaping force in the political outcome overall.”
However, the US is criticized for enabling the growth of what became Al-Qaida in the 1980s. Many fear that by training and arming forces in Syria, the United States will create a similar monster. By vetting the members of the opposition, “we have gotten to know them very well. We understand the values they stand for, their long-term political objectives.” They are different from Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. “They are worthy of our support.”
Referring to US actions in Iraq over the past decade, Lobatt highlighted the fact that the United States “has done all this before. We trained up the Iraqi army,” and expressed concern over a repeat of this failure. The difference this time, Allen stated is focus.
The National Guard is coming, the Iraqi Security Forces are being specifically focused on the ISIS as a threat, and that the tribes will be motivated to work. And I think this layered approach, with the right kind of training and assistance and partnership, capacity building, and force generation, I think we’ve got a very good formula here.
Finally, addressing the strong feeling of uncertainty over the US’s endgame for Iraq, Allen affirmed support for “a territorially intact and sovereign Iraq” with a representative and inclusive government in Baghdad. In Syria, the United States’ goal is to enable the opposition to “defend themselves,” “build out their capabilities,” and become “politically united,” These elements will ultimately arm them with the political agency to determine Syria’s future.