More than a year after publicly pressing President Barack Obama to “destroy” the Islamic State with swift and decisive American military intervention in Iraq and Syria, retired Gen. John Allen reportedly will step down from the special-envoy job created to do just that. Allen leaves behind an arguably more powerful and influential ISIS and a White House once again searching for a new strategy.
Allen’s call to war largely was fueled by his belief that ISIS thrust itself on the United States, which had an obligation to re-stabilize the region after sacrificing more than 4,500 American troop lives in the Iraq War, and had a duty to respond to the execution and beheading of American journalist James Foley.
With the ear of the president in intimate Oval Office meetings, Allen convinced Obama to get into the fight. The general warned it would be a years-long battle against the powerful ISIS ideology, but the swift and surgical strikes for which he once advocated have had questionable results. Allen’s resignation comes as the ISIS war continues to produce mixed headlines ranging from territory being regained by U.S.-led coalition forces, yet seemingly unending U.S. airstrikes having limited impact on the group’s ability to resupply and recruit young fighters to its ranks and its ideology.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest would not confirm Allen’s resignation, which was first reported by Bloomberg View, but gave a lengthy eulogy for the envoy’s service anyway, crediting the former top Afghanistan War commander most recently with securing Turkey’s entry into the fight against ISIS. Allen’s main task was to build an international coalition and draw Middle East and regional powers into the fight.
“He is somebody who signed up for a six-month tour, and he's been on the job for, I believe, more than a year now. So that is an indication of the commitment to his service that he's demonstrated,” Earnest said. “There are a variety of ways to point to the progress that that coalition has made. I think the most — the best one I can direct you toward is the recent commitment that we've received from Turkey to more deeply engage in this international effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”
“There was, you’ll recall last August, a lot of intense skepticism about how much success the United States would have in building a genuine coalition — international coalition to take the fight to ISIL and to carry out all elements of our strategy against ISIL. But the fact is, I think, there are 62 countries now that are actively participating in that effort, including Turkey.”
Obama tapped Allen with the title of special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL following Allen’s war cries in 2014. “I vote for sooner and we must strike them with a hard blow,” Allen said in an exclusive June 2014 interview with Defense One. “The U.S. will have to act to stop this onslaught. After all we’ve invested in Iraq’s stability, including nearly 4,500 American lives, we have an obligation, and indeed we have the capability, to help now,” Allen said. “We did not ask for this emergency, but it is upon us, and this is a moment for U.S. strategic leadership.
Two months later, referring to the Islamic State as IS, Allen wrote an op-ed published in Defense One: “IS must be destroyed and we must move quickly to pressure its entire ‘nervous system,’ break it up, and destroy its pieces.”
“The president deserves great credit in attacking IS. It was the gravest of decisions for him,” Allen wrote, citing airstrikes in Northern Iraq. “But a comprehensive American and international response now — NOW — is vital to the destruction of this threat. The execution of James Foley is an act we should not forgive nor should we forget, it embodies and brings home to us all what this group represents. The Islamic State is an entity beyond the pale of humanity and it must be eradicated. If we delay now, we will pay later.”
First seen as the leader of the ISIS effort, Allen quickly faded from spotlight as he went to work building the coalition while ISIS continued to win territory, resources and tens of thousands of recruits from the region to its fight.
Allen, 61, was retired from uniform and serving the Pentagon as a go-between for Israeli and Palestinian defense leaders for the Middle East peace process in August 2014. He was on his way to the Pentagon to resign that post and begin as co-director of a new Brooking Institute security center when Secretary of State John Kerry called him with a new command: help put together the anti-ISIS coalition.
Allen never shied from public attention, but was not a war general in the vein of Gens. Norman Schwarzkopf or David Petraeus. The war’s top commander remains U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Lloyd Austin, in Tampa, Fla, who rarely appears in public or speaks to the media about his wartime command. Mostly, Allen continued quietly as a warrior-diplomat working in the Middle East. Even the Pentagon seemed unaware he was resigning.
“I did hear that report as I was walking in here,” said Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook. “He’s done a great job in pushing the ball forward in terms of …the fight against ISIL and building up a coalition. …. We hold Gen. Allen in high regard for his work and appreciate the efforts he’s made in the overall effort.”