Gen. Allen: Empowering Iraqi Forces is Key to Controlling ISIS


Until recently, retired Marine Gen. John Allen led the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Allen about U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria and whether it's working.


In the last year, the U.S. and its allies have been enmeshed in a complicated war with ISIS. It's happening on the ground in places like Syria and Iraq, where the so-called Islamic State is trying to build up a caliphate. And it's happening online, where the group actively recruits would-be jihadis from around the world, including from the U.S. and Europe. The man you're about to hear from has been at the forefront of this war. In 2014, President Obama tapped retired Marine Corps General John Allen to spearhead the U.S.-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State. General Allen stepped down from that job a couple of months ago. He joins me now in our studios to talk about the past year in the war against ISIS and how it might evolve in 2016. General Allen, thanks so much for coming in.

JOHN ALLEN: It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: May I start with a big picture question? Is the U.S. closer to containing the threat from ISIS than it was a year ago?

ALLEN: I'd say yes. Much of this year was setting the conditions, ultimately to effectively contain and then begin the process of pushing back on ISIL - or Daesh, as we've typically called it - and to begin to degrade it.

MARTIN: When you were in Iraq, you were an integral part of the Sunni Awakening, which is often credited for turning that war around, getting Sunni sheikhs on board with the U.S. coalition against militants. There have been calls for something similar to happen now, to get the Sunni sheikhs of Anbar to step up against the threat from ISIS. Do you think that's possible?

ALLEN: The Awakening as we knew it occurred because of a series of conditions that don't exist today in Iraq. What we want is not the Awakening as an entity to be replicated. What we want is the effect of the Awakening. And that is ownership by the Sunnis in the outcome. And that's what we want.

MARTIN: Develop very personal relationships.

ALLEN: Exactly correct. But we had the military capacity to do that in those days. What we need today is for the sheikhs and, more broadly, the Sunni leadership, to become invested ultimately with the defeat of Daesh.

MARTIN: But they were invested, in large part - correct me if I'm wrong. But they were invested in the fight back in '06, '07, in large part because they were paid. They were given financial incentive.

ALLEN: That wasn't the real reason. They were invested because Daesh - or at that point, al-Qaida - was attempting to wipe them out. That was - and I was there every day. And the casualties that they inflicted upon the sheikhs and their families and the individual members of the tribes were horrendous, really horrendous. The profound difference between what occurred in '06, '07 and '08 and what's occurring today - we had 35,000 Marines and soldiers in Al Anbar province. The notion that the Awakening occurred in complete isolation from the Americans is a flawed notion. It's just not historically correct. The reason the Awakening could get on its feet was because Marines and soldiers fought and died every single day to shape the environment that created the space for the tribes to get on their feet. That's why it was so powerful. Now, we don't have those kinds of forces there today.

MARTIN: Should U.S. ground forces be there? I mean, in many ways, this is a traditional war. ISIS needs territory in order to maintain its legitimacy. It's what its mandate, its mission, is all about is creating a caliphate. And they need ground to do that. Some would argue that in order to eliminate the threat, you just - you have to go in full bore. Should the U.S. engage in a ground war in Iraq? And what would that look like? What are the consequences of that?

ALLEN: One thing that we have learned over time is that in an emergency like this, where you introduce large numbers of foreign forces, you may see some form of an immediate tactical return that's favorable - something that you want to see, the defeat tactically of the force. But often, just the very presence of those foreign forces create a whole series of dynamics and tensions that is fraught. It truly is fraught and can create additional issues as those forces begin to pull out.

MARTIN: Can you say more about what that means?

ALLEN: The resistance, as it has emerged in the Middle East over the last 20 years, has been the result of elements within populations responding to the presence of foreign troops inside the social fabric of this relatively delicate region. And so it was the right decision, I believe, to decide to do all we could to empower the indigenous forces of Iraq - and now, increasingly in Syria because we have that chance - for them to be the defeat mechanism. And I use that term very precisely, the defeat mechanism of Daesh - because if Iraqis defeat Daesh, if Iraqis are able then to stabilize and rescue the liberated populations, if Iraqis are the authors of the restoration of the infrastructure that's been defeated, that's the permanent solution. The permanent solution doesn't come with large-scale numbers of American or Western maneuver forces in a big ground battle there for weeks, taking hundreds of casualties potentially and then pulling out, having created in essence the kinds of antibodies once again in a region that has sown, in many respects, the instability that we face today. So it may take longer to empower the indigenous forces to be effective against Daesh. But they have taken Ramadi. They have taken Tikrit. They have taken Baiji. And when they take it and they stabilize the population and they rescue the population, they are the authors of their success. And that creates permanence in the outcome that we seek.

MARTIN: I imagine when you left, you had an exit interview, if not with the president himself then with top members of his national security team. May I ask you to share what you can about the guidance you gave as this threat unfolds, as the administration looks to 2016?

ALLEN: I was clear that beyond dealing with Daesh as an entity in the Middle East, we have to be extraordinarily attentive to the capacity of Daesh to create linkages with other organizations that are equally reprehensible and abhorrent - Boko Haram, for example, in Nigeria, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in the Sinai, the breakaway elements of the Taliban. We have to understand the network that operationalizes the linkage and attack that network relentlessly to disrupt it.

MARTIN: Retired Marine Corps General John Allen. He recently stepped down as the U.S. envoy to the global coalition in the fight against ISIS. Thanks so much for talking with us.

ALLEN: Great to be with you. Thank you.