The veteran Marine general who leads the Obama’s administration’s response to the Islamic State is firing back at critics of the international campaign, arguing Tuesday in public remarks that focus belongs on long-term strategy rather than immediate battlefield setbacks.
Retired Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, issued point-by-point refutations of what many foreign policy analysts see as key failings of the global response, such as the reluctance to publicly pressure Turkey more on border policing, or the entrenched sectarianism that’s blocking the formation of a viable anti-extremist Sunni Muslim force in Iraq.
Allen, speaking at the Washington-based Center for American Progress policy research center, had handy answers for those and other criticisms, offering a remarkably upbeat assessment for a campaign that’s known not for its progress but lack thereof. He explained that his leadership of a 50-nation coalition in Afghanistan taught him that it was essential “to see the ups and the downs of a campaign within the context of long-term strategic objectives” rather than in immediate obstacles.
Since the formation of the anti-Islamic State coalition last September, the extremist movement has expanded its self-proclaimed caliphate despite U.S. air strikes and a handful of gains by Shiite Muslim and Kurdish paramilitaries. Apart from some highly regarded Kurdish fighters, there’s still little in the way of a capable ground force, whether in Iraq or Syria. And only last week the Obama administration’s strategy came under fire when Defense Secretary Ash Carter told a Senate committee that a $500 million program to raise some 15,000 opposition fighters in Syria so far had trained just 60 men, despite applications from 7,000.
It is one of ISIL’s great ironies that they’re so skilled at using modern technologies to spread such an anti-modern and medieval and dehumanizing theology.
Retired Gen. John Allen
Allen spun such grave problems as temporary setbacks, to be reversed over time with a more streamlined vetting procedure and the eventual payoff of parallel lines of effort that’ll support the military component.
“We can plainly see that the number of fighters currently enrolled in the program is smaller than we had anticipated,” Allen said. “We must find ways to improve this aspect of our strategy, and we are,” Allen added, without elaboration.
Allen went to bat for Turkey, suggesting it was unfair for Turkey to bear the largest burden of stopping foreign fighters before they make it into Turkey’s jihadist pipeline.
Allen went to bat for Turkey, a NATO ally and coalition member whose government is widely accused of undermining the anti-Islamic State campaign by allowing jihadists easy passage into Syria and cracking down on coalition-backed Kurdish fighters, whose aspirations of an independent state seem more worrisome to Turkey than the brutal caliphate already on its border.
Allen suggested that it was unfair for Turkey to bear the largest burden on the foreign fighter issue and called on coalition members to do their bit at home by identifying potential recruits and stopping them before they make it into Turkey’s jihadist pipeline.
“Other partners need to step up their own interdiction, intelligence collection, and sharing of information,” said Allen, who was in Ankara last week. “In fact, the Turkish border should be the last line of defense in this equation.”
On Iraq, Allen called the loss of the western Iraqi provincial capital of Ramadi “a setback from which we must learn and understand.” He then hailed a new Iraqi offensive in Anbar province, but offered little detail on the prospects for success in what many specialists predict will be a prolonged, difficult fight waged with only a token number of Sunni fighters.
One major U.S. effort is blocking the Islamic State’s fundraising and access to global financial markets.
“In just a short period of time after Ramadi was seized by ISIL, the Iraqi security forces are en route now to isolate Ramadi and, ultimately, to take it back,” Allen said, using an acronym for the Islamic State, which is also known as IS, ISIS and Daash.
Recent Iraqi operations to reclaim towns have led to a series of reports by international human rights groups documenting reprisal killings, land grabs and other abuses by the ostensible “liberators.” While Allen didn’t specifically address the issue, he dwelled on a four-pronged plan to quickly restore order to Anbar territories wrested from Islamic State control.
The steps are: clear out the militants, bring in a “hold force” of reconstituted Sunni police and allied tribesmen, restore local governance with a free hand from Baghdad, and provide immediate basic services such as medical aid, water and electricity. Allen said the coalition had divvied up responsibilities and “is surging” technical assistance – the Italians are in charge of police training, for example, and the Germans and Emiratis are working together on stabilization activities.
Still, Allen stressed, no amount of outside help will tip the balance in Anbar without a serious commitment from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is reluctant to arm and fund Sunni militias for fear they’ll turn into an insurgency.
“Success in Anbar will depend heavily on Baghdad’s ability and willingness to recruit and train and equip Sunnis to take back their communities,” Allen said. “This is an effort that will require Prime Minister Abadi and others in his government to assume political risk with their largely Shiite constituency.”
To show the United States isn’t alone in the heavy lifting against the Islamic State, Allen rattled off tallies of joint efforts: 15 coalition members building up the Iraqi security forces at five training centers, six contributing to advising efforts, eight conducting strikes over Iraq and five involved in the bombing campaign in Syria.
One key line of effort for the United States, in conjunction with the Saudis and Italians, is monitoring and blocking the Islamic State’s fundraising, criminal enterprises and access to global financial markets. Allen made clear that the campaign was challenging, admitting that the Islamic State “is proving resilient” against efforts by coalition air strikes to attack its prized oil operations. And, he said, it’s important to remember that the group has several other revenue streams: extortion, looting, kidnapping for ransom, human trafficking, and selling plundered antiquities.
Another “uphill battle” Allen described was the counter-messaging effort against the Islamic State’s slick, social media-focused propaganda machine. He said the Islamic State has identified gaps in an increasingly interconnected world and is exploiting those spaces with “21st-century tools” such as easy international travel, global financial networks and the Internet.
“It is one of ISIL’s great ironies,” Allen said, “that they’re so skilled at using modern technologies to spread such an anti-modern and medieval and dehumanizing theology.”