Obama ISIS Czar Stepping Down

BrookingsBrookingsFor the last year, General John Allen, who previously served as head of the international military coalition in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013, has been in charge of coordinating military efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Once called a “JV squad” by President Obama, since their rapid territorial expansions in Iraq and Syria ISIS has been treated as a major national security threat by the U.S. foreign policy establishment. 

Allen’s initial appointment, last September, was meant to be for six months. Allen was supposed to coordinate the effort to “degrade and destroy” ISIS forces. The U.S. strategy, such as it is, consists of subsidizing regional anti-ISIS efforts. The U.S., for example, trained 54 Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. Only four or five are left in the fight—the U.S. spent $250 million training the group. And while Allen was able to negotiate the use of a Turkish air base by U.S. forces, Turkey has also started a military campaign against Kurdish rebels operating in the country. The Kurds have been America’s most reliable partners in the anti-ISIS coalition. And now, the Pentagon is reportedly investigating whether reports by intelligence analysts were doctored before being sent to officials. 

It’s in that environment that Allen will be resigning his post. 

Via Josh Rogin and Eli Lake at Bloomberg View: 

U.S. officials familiar with Allen’s decision say he has been frustrated with White House micromanagement of the war and its failure to provide adequate resources to the fight. He unsuccessfully tried to convince the administration to allow U.S. tactical air control teams to deploy on the ground to help pick targets for air strikes in Iraq. Allen also tried several times to convince the White House to agree to Turkish demands for a civilian protection zone in Syria, to no avail. Nonetheless, administration officials stress that Allen’s decision to leave his post was motivated mainly by the health of his wife, who suffers from an auto-immune disorder. 

The White House was aware from the beginning Allen was interested only in staying on for six months. He stayed an additional six months after reportedly being asked to by Secretary of State John Kerry. Rogin and Lake report Allen will be replaced by his deputy, Ambassador Brett McGuirk, but that the White House is looking for a “big name replacement” for Allen. 

That, and the course of the anti-ISIS effort so far, suggest one of the major problems of the campaign is a focus on the cosmetic.  

If ISIS is a “clear and present danger,” as Allen argued in an op-ed a month before being named ISIS czar, then Allen, a four-star Marine general, should have committed to staying until the effort was a success. He should not have agreed to come on for just six months, unless ISIS presents more of a PR problem for the U.S. foreign policy establishment (insofar as U.S. foreign policy to date has helped contribute to the creation of ISIS).  

Turkey’s actions reveal similar problems. If ISIS is a threat to regional stability, what is there to negotiate to allow the world’s last remaining superpower to use your air base to help fight that threat? If ISIS poses an existential threat to the region, defeating it should trump lesser concerns. Unless the Kurds pose a greater existential threat to the government of Turkey than ISIS does. 

The U.S. government’s refusal to shift its “Assad must go” policy also undermines the claim that ISIS is the greatest threat in the region. Assad may be a brutal tin-pot dictator, but he’s certainly not the only one. And at the moment, on the ground in Syria, his government is best poised to “degrade and destroy” ISIS. The U.S. certainly doesn’t have to endorse Assad or his actions, or offer material support. Butting out and not taking a position on Assad, on its own, would improve Assad’s ability to fight ISIS by making it less costly for potential allies, like Russia, to openly support his efforts. It seems an obvious move if ISIS is as “clear and present” a danger as some of the foreign policy establishment has claimed. 

If ISIS is defeated by U.S. forces, their defeat will lay the groundwork for the next, even more brutal, militant Islamist organization to rise up in the region, just as ISIS filled the void left by Al-Qaeda in Iraq. David Petraeus, the former CIA chief and retired Army general who served in Iraq, has in fact floated the idea of the U.S. allying with Al-Qaeda to defeat ISIS. That’s only a misguided war or two away from suggesting allying with ISIS to get rid of the organization that replaces ISIS when the U.S. defeats ISIS.  

Barack Obama, Lindsey Graham, and others are partially right about ISIS. A regional force is required to defeat the ISIS. But they are dangerously wrong about the inexpendability of the U.S. in that fight. U.S. participation in and subsidization of the fight against ISIS has the effect of distorting priorities, giving regional powers the space to ignore the “clear and present” threat to them, making it even less likely they’ll be able to defeat ISIS. The most effective thing the U.S. can do to encourage a victory over ISIS is withdrawing its support of the fight, and its opposition to Assad, and creating the space for the region to fight for its own survival instead of fighting each other.