Exclusive: Gen John Allen, US envoy to the anti-IS coalition
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FRANCE 24 spoke to US General John Allen – the special presidential envoy to the international coalition against the Islamic State group – about the origins of extremism, taking back Ramadi and fighting alongside Iran-backed militias.
Islamic State militants have made key advances in both Iraq and Syria this month, seizing the Iraqi provincial capital of Ramadi on May 17 and the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra just three days later. The jihadist group also took control of the last border crossing into Iraq held by the Syrian regime, a move that seemingly helped to unify the self-styled “caliphate” the group has declared across parts of Syria and Iraq.
US General John Allen, who is tasked with coordinating US cooperation with the 62-member international alliance that has been launching air strikes on IS group targets since September, spoke to FRANCE 24’s Philip Crowther this week about efforts to defeat the jihadist group ahead of a June 2 coalition meeting in Paris.
Origins of extremism
FRANCE 24: Can a group like the Islamic State organisation be entirely defeated? Is that even possible?
General Allen: "Well, we need to be careful about applying...solely a military term to an outcome. When you hear us talk about the defeat of Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group), inherent in the outcome is an expectation that specifically, and more broadly, we can deal with some of the underlying causes that ultimately bring an organisation like Daesh into being.”
“So at the same time we talk about the defeat of Daesh, we’re also talking about dealing with the origins of violent extremism, and I think we would say that we have to deal with the political issues. We have to deal with inherent social, economic, religious issues, because in the end, the aggregation of those creates an environment where an organisation like Daesh can find cohesion and purpose.”
General Allen went on to say that the international coalition is taking a multi-pronged approach to defeating the IS group that targets the jihadists in five areas.
General Allen: “Beyond the military piece, we have the line of effort with respect to stemming the flow of foreign fighters, interdicting Daesh’s financial assets, providing for stabilisation – in essence, the rescue of the liberated populations – and then, ultimately, a counter-messaging dimension to the strategy as well.”
Losing Ramadi – the capital of Iraq’s largest province, Anbar – was a temporary “defeat” for the coalition, despite the gains being made on other fronts.
General Allen: “While Ramadi, in fact, was a defeat, there have been significant successes as well," Allen said. "The obligation of the coalition now is – with our eyes wide open – to look at what happened in Ramadi. And when we meet soon at the ministerial level, take full stock of, and an appraisal of, what happened in Ramadi with the idea of taking those actions necessary for the implementation of the strategy so it’ll be successful.”
Overall, the Islamic State group is “losing ground”.
General Allen: “They’ve lost significant numbers of troops, a lot of equipment – and again, I don’t like to go into numbers because they change every minute. But there have been some battlefield successes of late, and those are undeniable. But the challenge for us is to ensure we understood what happened, how we can take action as a coalition to support the Iraqis so that we can prevent that from happening again. And we are, in fact, taking action to do that, and that will be part of the discussion that we have in Paris when we meet on the 2nd (of June).”
Taking back Ramadi
FRANCE 24: How close are we to seeing a serious attempt at taking back Ramadi on behalf of the Iraqi forces?
General Allen: “Well, the Iraqis are extraordinarily intent on taking back Ramadi and, ultimately, liberating all of Anbar province. And they’re in the process of organising to do that.”
“We’ll be very closely in touch with them, lockstep with them, as this process of planning unfolds ... And our part of this will be to be as helpful as we can, to provide support as necessary, ultimately, to achieve the success that they want – and we want, of course.”
FRANCE 24: What kind of a fight can you expect in Ramadi? The Obama administration recently has suggested that what will happen in Ramadi might be similar to what happened in Kobane. That took a long time, to get Kobane out of the hands of the Islamic State organisation, and pretty much destroyed the city. Is that something that we’re looking at with Ramadi as well?
General Allen: “I don’t know, and that’s a good question for the Pentagon. I think as we try to understand what’s inside that city, we’ll get a better feel for what kinds of forces will be necessary and the kinds of firepower that will be demanded, ultimately, to support that force.”
“What we do know is, every day that force remains inside of Ramadi it’ll be harder to eject from Ramadi, so that’s part of the urgency, I think, that is animating the process of moving forward aggressively with planning, assembling the forces, and ultimately moving out to the west and recovering Ramadi.”
US boots on the ground?
FRANCE 24: Would you admit that it would be a lot easier if there were some US soldiers, combat soldiers, on the ground?
General Allen: “This is what we learned by being on the ground in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and I’ve got extensive experience in both: You can achieve certain objectives with your own national forces on the ground, but often the outcome of that is to create a radicalisation or a radicalisation of the population … you may achieve a short-term gain by having those forces on the ground, but in the end, that presence often becomes more the problem than the solution.”
Allen said the US military can help in the initial fight, but the ultimate victory must belong to the Syrians and the Iraqis to ensure that it is a lasting one.
General Allen: “Having learned that in a number of places, having watched that through history, what we are attempting to do here – which I think is the right thing – is to empower the indigenous forces of Iraq and ultimately Syria to take back their countries. And we can provide the kinds of training necessary for them to be capable of doing that. We can provide the kinds of firepower necessary to enable and to facilitate their capabilities.”
“In the end, when they have ultimately – let’s say in Iraq, in this case – when Iraq has restored its territorial integrity and the central government and the provincial governments have extended sovereignty over the areas of their governance, they will have done it ... There creates then the opportunity for permanence in the solution, and that’s the operating philosophy behind the strategy at this point.”
‘Not going to support Iran’
FRANCE 24: Some of the militias who are fighting the Islamic State group are supported by Iran…
General Allen: “We’re not supporting those militias. It’s important for your viewers and observers of this process to understand that the Shia militias are not monolithic. There is that component of the Shia militias which have been tied both by their extremism and their alignment with Iran over a long period of time, but there’s a large segment – in fact, the preponderance of the Shia militias that are in the field today responded to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call for all loyal Iraqis to flock to the flag last year when the emergency of Daesh was unfolding and Iraq looked like it was on its knees."
Allen noted that Iraqis from all walks of life joined in the fight after Sistani's call.
General Allen: "One day they were a teacher, the next day they’re holding a weapon and they’re in the ranks and they’re fighting. And those are the Shia militia elements which in Tikrit were ultimately subsumed under the Iraqi high command, and when we dropped ordnance in the battle space, that was one of our requirements. The coalition required that those Shia militias be part of the [Iraqi] security forces. And they were there, and they will be in Anbar.”
“That doesn’t mean that some of those other Shia militias might be in the field, but we’re not going to support them, and we’re not going to support Iran in this process.”
Beyond the coalition
FRANCE 24: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said that he thinks the anti-IS group coalition needs reinforcing. No other countries have joined the coalition in the last nine months, at least not militarily. Is that something that could still happen?
General Allen: “Oh, absolutely, and we are in conversation with many countries – and I think this is an important point, and this may well be part of the point that the foreign minister is attempting to make. If countries want to join the coalition, we invite their involvement. But there are many countries that choose not to be a part of the coalition, but we have active conversations with them. And there is coordination, there is cooperation, because there are not a few of the countries not in the coalition who also have their national interests potentially to be affected by Daesh. They may never join the coalition, but that doesn’t mean we won’t talk to them; that doesn’t mean we won’t compare notes. It also doesn’t mean we won’t cooperate and even coordinate with them.”
“Joining the coalition is a choice that will be made at a national level within those countries. We’re happy to have the conversation with those countries when they do choose to do it, but I frequently visit capitals where I have conversations with countries that I don’t anticipate being part of the coalition, but we have close cooperation and close consultation.”
Click on the video player above to watch the full FRANCE 24 interview. To read a transcript of the interview on the US State Department website, click here.