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Obama’s envoy says U.S. and allies have momentum against Islamic State in Iraq

Although Kurdish-Syrian forces recently recaptured the town of Tal Abyad on Syria’s border, many are still concerned about the rise of Islamic State militants. Retired Gen. John Allen, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, talks to Judy Woodruff about the Islamic State group and the progress of the fight against it.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The Islamic State group suffered a major defeat in the last 24 hours, losing a vital supply line to its self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa. The ISIS loss happened inside Syria, near the Turkish border, in a town called Tal Abyad. Kurdish fighters and members of the Free Syrian Army took control of the area after days of fighting. They were helped by three U.S. coalition airstrikes on Islamic State targets.

    The development comes on the heels of the Obama administration's announcement that it is sending an additional 450 trainers to Iraq to fight the Sunni militant group.

    Helping coordinate efforts with allies against the Islamic State is retired Marine General John Allen, the president's special envoy.

    I spoke to him earlier today at the State Department, as part of our series No End in Sight.

    General John Allen, thank you very much for talking with us.

    GEN. JOHN ALLEN (RET.), International Coalition Coordinator: It's always a pleasure, Judy. Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, you have just come back from a trip to Iraq and a number of other countries. The news lately about ISIS has been pretty disappointing, in fact, discouraging. But there was some good news yesterday out of Syria and a battle right on the Turkish border. What you can tell us about that?

  • GEN. JOHN ALLEN:

    Well, the reporting is still coming, coming together on this, Judy.

    It's a long-term effort that's been under way by some of the resistance elements in that region to ultimately cut off a border crossing called Tal Abyad. And it, we believe, is one of the principal sources for supply to Da'esh, or ISIL's capital in Raqqa to the south.

    So, we're waiting to get more reporting on it. We will get more over the next few days and get a better and a clearer picture. But one thing that's very important, I think, is, as these forces continue to operate, we're going to continue to make the point with them that they have to protect the populations that they're liberating. It's essential, really, to the stabilization of the area. So we're going to watch that as well.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, as we were saying, overall, the news has been pretty discouraging, the fall of Ramadi, the last stronghold essentially of the Iraqi government in Anbar province, and, of course, the fact that ISIS has been able to not just take, but hold large swathes of territory in Syria.

    In Iraq, we're now a year out from ISIS taking over Mosul. I mean, what — who has the upper hand right now in this conflict?

  • GEN. JOHN ALLEN:

    Well, I think the momentum is growing, actually, on the part of the coalition and the Iraqis.

    If you look at the battle space across Iraq, Tikrit was recently liberated, which is not an insignificant city, frankly. And very important activity is going on in Tikrit today in the province of Salahuddin, is that, starting yesterday, families began to return to Tikrit after it was liberated.

    There has been the beginnings of the recovery of the Sunni Iraqi police of that province, which will be essential to securing and holding that population. It's not just beating Da'esh. It's ultimately moving the populations back into their home villages or, in this case, the city, and doing that in a way where we can secure the population through the recovered police and doing it in a way where we can provide stabilization to the population by the movement of funds created as a result of the coalition.

    That's a pretty important outcome. And that process is under way in a number of places in Iraq.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, the president just announced at the end of last week that 450 more U.S. military advisers, trainers will be going to Iraq soon to beef up the U.S. presence there now to work in Anbar province.

  • GEN. JOHN ALLEN:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How much difference is that going to make?

  • GEN. JOHN ALLEN:

    What you saw with the defeat in Ramadi — and we learned a lot about that — was that, in the end, while those defenders fought hard for a long period of time and ultimately withdrew, if you go up the river just a short distance to Al Asad, an operational platform where we have been for some period of time, the training of Iraqi security forces and the training of tribal forces has rendered a big segment of the Euphrates River completely empty of Da'esh.

    There is the proof of the concept behind the strategy of ultimately empowering the indigenous forces to take control of their areas. What Al-Taqaddum is, is another operational platform that gives them the capacity to rally in one place, ultimately to be trained by Americans and Iraqis to give them the capacity to take back the eastern part of the province and to work closely with the other elements that are up the river towards Al Asad.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    One of the views out there is that the U.S. should be doing much more than this, if it's worth doing anything, it's worth coming in with overwhelming support, that this is taking too long, that ISIS is get too long-lasting and deep a foothold, and the U.S. shouldn't be making such a baby step, if you will.

  • GEN. JOHN ALLEN:

    I think the U.S. is doing a great deal. And let's just — let's call it the coalition as well.

    I think we're doing a great deal. Beyond the clearance of Tikrit, which wouldn't have happened, frankly, without coalition support to the Iraqi security forces, without our emphasis on recovery of the police and lining up coalition partners to help to train the police, without going after actively the development of a sustainability or a stabilization fund, without our constant training of Iraqi main force units and tribal elements, we wouldn't be where we are today.

    And so there's a lot of activity that's going on.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Another view is that this is just turning out to be too hard, it's not going to work, and the U.S. should just basically pull back and let — leave the fight to the Kurds, the Iranians, anyone else in the region.

  • GEN. JOHN ALLEN:

    Well, that's not going to work.

    I mean, it completely destabilizes the region if we permit Iraq ultimately to come apart. And the chances are very good that that would be the case without the support that we're providing to the prime minister at this particular moment. It's not going to occur in the short-term. It's going to take some time. And we just need to recognize that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    General Allen, you have also been very focused on the flow, flood of foreign fighters into the region to work with, fight with ISIS. You were recently — you were not only in Iraq. You have made a trip to the Balkan countries, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, because of the concern about the source, foreign fighters there.

    Talk a little bit about what your message was there and how serious this problem is.

  • GEN. JOHN ALLEN:

    Every one of those countries is, in fact, a source country.

    But we're also a source country, and we're looking very hard at how we get at the business of reducing the attractiveness of the caliphate, which is often — the so-called caliphate, which is the — often the point of legitimatization for the message of Da'esh. And so they're bracing that hard. And we can learn a lot from what they're trying to do.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In connection with that, there was a story in The Washington Post over the last few days essentially saying the U.S. is losing the battle in social media to win hearts and minds, that ISIS has been so effective in getting its message out there and making it seem so appealing, and that the U.S. and the coalition has had a much tougher time.

    Where does that stand? And do you…

  • GEN. JOHN ALLEN:

    That's a great question.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And why is it so hard?

  • GEN. JOHN ALLEN:

    Well, it's hard for a variety of reasons.

    First, I don't agree with the broad characterization that we're losing the conflict in that regard. It's a great challenge, because Da'esh only has one message, and they only have a single entity, by and large, that's putting that message out. So it's easy to get a unity of purpose and a unity of effort in that message.

    But I recall the words by one of our coalition's leaders. And that's King Abdullah II of Jordan, where he said: This is about recovering our faith. And to do this, we must have an Arab face and a Muslim voice.

    And I have traveled a lot, Judy, across the coalition. I have been to 29 different capitals at this point. I have been to Southeast Asia. I have been to the Middle East. I have been in Europe. I have been in North America. So, with that much diversity across so many regions in the world, achieving the unity of purpose and the unity of message is really important. And that's what we're working to do.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    General John Allen, we thank you very much for talking with us.

  • GEN. JOHN ALLEN:

    It's great to see you again, Judy. Thank you very much.

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