By James Kitfield
Yahoo News, April 28, 2015
Not long ago, retired Marine Corps General John Allen was a pretty good argument for the wisdom of the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.” As fighters for the so-called Islamic State (IS) rolled through Iraq last summer, sources say Allen was privately furious with the Obama administration’s tepid response. As the deputy commanding general of Marine forces in Anbar Province back in 2006-08, Allen had participated in the Sunni uprising against al-Qaida in Iraq, commonly known as the “Anbar Awakening.” Those kinds of bonds endure, and retired general Allen knew that many of the Sunni sheiks and tribes that the Marines had fought alongside were in the direct path of the IS juggernaut that captured roughly a third of Iraq.
“It’s difficult to describe how desperate the situation was last summer, with ISIL [another term for IS] fighters pouring down the Euphrates River Valley, Iraqi Security Forces crumbling, and cities and towns going down one after another in front of the onslaught,” Allen said at the Atlantic Council last month. “All of those Iraqis were exposed to the intolerable evil of ISIL, which operates far beyond the pale of civilized nations. So as the emergency unfolded, my thoughts were with my many friends in Iraq at that time.”
And then last September, the Obama administration named Allen as its special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. The privately fuming critic was suddenly very publicly in charge, at least in appearance.
The job of “special presidential envoy” is fraught with ambiguity and bureaucratic tensions. Special envoys typically derive their influence from a direct line to the White House, a relationship that, especially in the case of the Pentagon, bypasses a hierarchal chain of command and short-circuits carefully delineated authorities. Those tensions seemed to come to the fore when Foreign Policy published an article last October suggesting dysfunctional squabbling between Allen’s team and the staff of Central Command commander Gen. Lloyd Austin. Quoting unnamed sources, the feature denigrated Allen at length under the blunt heading, “Is General John Allen in Over His Head?” Contacted for this article, both the Pentagon and the State Department said that supposed tensions pointed to in the article were normal disagreements over a complex security challenge, and greatly overblown.
However, given the stakes involved with the rapid advancement of IS and the obvious bureaucratic tensions, even some Allen admirers questioned the need for a special presidential envoy. “I don’t think the problem was personality-driven, because both generals Austin and Allen are great guys, but friction was built into their positions and roles,” said former CENTCOM Commander Gen. Anthony Zinni (USMC-retired). “If I were still CENTCOM commander and a retired four-star general was brought in to elicit coalition support for operations in my area of responsibility, I would certainly be scratching my head. It just seemed odd to me.”
Mounting signs of strategic incoherence in the U.S. campaign to “degrade and defeat” IS only added to concerns that generals Allen and Austin were not working from the same page. In January, a delegation of Sunni tribal sheiks visited Washington, D.C., for instance, and complained that they were not getting the weapons or support from CENTCOM or the Iraqi government that they had been led to expect. In February, a senior CENTCOM official told reporters that a U.S.-trained force of some 20,000 to 25,000 Iraqis would launch an offensive to recapture Mosul from IS defenders in April or May — comments that were roundly criticized by the Iraqi government as imprudent and premature, and downplayed by Allen as a matter to be decided by the Iraqis.
The U.S. campaign in Iraq looked even more disjointed in early March, when Iraqi forces launched their first major counteroffensive in an attempt to retake the city of Tikrit, symbolic to Sunnis and former Baathists as the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Not only was the Tikrit operation not coordinated with U.S. military commanders at their Joint Operations Center in Iraq, but it was also ostensibly led by Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, and dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite militias that many feared would further provoke a sectarian civil war with retribution killings. U.S. commanders in Iraq washed their hands of the operation, withholding U.S. air support. The Tikrit counteroffensive quickly stalled.
With the anti-IS campaign on a razor’s edge, U.S. officials finally pushed hard, and seemingly in unison. At a key turning point in the U.S.’s anti-ISIL campaign in Iraq, officials from Allen’s team at the State Department met face-to-face with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi numerous times, stressing that he had a critical choice to make. CENTCOM would provide air cover to the Tikrit offensive, but only if all participating units were placed under the direction of the legitimate Iraqi government in Baghdad, and under the command and control of the Iraqi military. The U.S. refused to act as the air force of marauding, Iranian-backed Shiite militias on a mission of revenge.
When al-Abadi finally agreed and imposed control over all participating units, some of the most notorious Iranian-backed Shiite militias abandoned the operation. CENTCOM began launching airstrikes in support of the counteroffensive as promised, and within 96 hours, Iraqi forces broke through IS defenses and recaptured Tikrit. Al-Abadi then travelled to Tikrit and raised the national flag alongside the Sunni governor of the province. When there were initial reports of some looting by Shiite “popular mobilization forces,” al-Abadi quickly gathered his security commanders and local officials, and together they stopped the looting.
“The Tikrit operation was very fluid and dynamic, and it did represent an important inflection point,” said Ambassador Brett McGurk, the deputy special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, told me. Since taking office last year, al-Abadi has articulated a vision for stabilizing Iraq that is fundamentally different from his predecessor, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, McGurk noted.
“That vision is of a more decentralized Iraq, with much more autonomy for local governance. Abadi restated that vision in Tikrit, insisting that local security forces would be responsible for stabilizing the city and the surrounding area. So at the end of the day, Abadi and the Iraqi government get very high marks for wresting control of a volatile situation in Tikrit, and stabilizing it.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials clearly hope to capitalize on the momentum from the successful Tikrit operation. After his recent visit to Washington, D.C., al-Abadi launched an operation by Iraqi forces in the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province, where he travelled to meet with the Anbar governor and to personally hand out more than 1,500 rifles to Sunni fighters. U.S. Special Operations Forces have trained roughly 2,000 Sunni fighters, and the 7th Iraqi Army Division, at Al Asad Air Base in Anbar Province. Backed by U.S. airpower, those forces were able to successfully fend off recent IS counterattacks in the Anbar capital of Ramadi, and at the Baiji Oil Refinery. In recent days, Iraqi Security Forces have secured the center of Ramadi and pushed ISIL fighters out of some neighborhoods, while recapturing a key bridge in the capital of western Anbar.
Close observers believe those recent battlefield successes have healed whatever rift still existed between Allen’s team and CENTCOM. “I think most of the aggravation and tension between General Allen and General Austin has gone away, and in the recent fighting in Anbar we saw CENTCOM working very closely with Sunni tribes who are close to and have a lot of respect for John Allen,” said a former senior official with close ties to Allen. “I mean, who would have thought we’d see a Shiite Prime Minister of Iraq handing out rifles to Sunni fighters? I know from my recent communications with Gen. Allen that his camp is cautiously optimistic about recent events in Iraq.”
Al-Abadi’s efforts to stitch back together Iraq’s shredded sectarian mosaic, however, remains a work in progress. U.S. officials have supported his proposal to create local National Guard units to maintain local security, a potential solution to the fundamental problem of overwhelmingly Shiite Iraqi Security Forces or militias operating in Sunni areas. But they concede that the idea has met resistance in the Iraqi Parliament, where Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers worry about the law’s impact on their own militias. In the meantime, the al-Abadi government passed a budget a few months ago requiring that all “popular mobilization forces” be under the control of the government, with a proportional representation of Sunni volunteers from Anbar. Roughly 7,500 Anbari fighters have joined popular mobilization units to date.
Until Sunni participation in the armed forces is institutionalized with the formation of official National Guard units, however, some experts worry that the current level of cooperation from Sunni tribes might prove fleeting. In the meantime, many experts credit Allen and CENTCOM for an outreach to the Sunni tribes in Anbar that has put IS on the defensive in the region.
“The recent fighting in Anbar around Ramadi shows that a good number of Sunni tribes and Sunni elites are now fighting on the side of the United States and the Iraqi government,” says James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and currently a distinguished visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He adds: “I still think the United States should get them more weapons, quicker, but the fact that they are fighting on our side is a pretty good indication that Gen. Allen and Ambassador McGurt are doing a great job.”