Is Gen. John Allen in Over His Head?

President Obama’s point man in the fight against the Islamic State faces a ruthless foe. But his detractors at home -- even in the Pentagon -- may be his biggest enemy.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

When U.S. President Barack Obama appointed retired Marine Gen. John Allen to serve as his special envoy to the global coalition against the Islamic State, the news was greeted with applause from the jihadi group’s greatest enemies. Kurdish and Iraqi Sunni leaders welcomed the appointment, with good reason — these same leaders had requested that Allen, widely known as one of Obama’s favorite generals, be appointed to the position.

But not everyone was pleased, especially at the Pentagon, where top generals had deep misgivings over how Obama had chosen to manage the campaign against the Islamic State.

Among the dissenters was the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin, who took a dim view of Allen’s role. Austin complained to aides that Allen would report directly to the president — bypassing both himself and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Austin believed that Allen’s appointment would lead to confusion about who was really leading the effort, a senior U.S. officer who serves with Austin told me several days after the appointment. "Why the hell do we need a special envoy — isn’t that what [Secretary of State] John Kerry’s for?" this senior officer asked.

Austin’s private doubts echoed the deep skepticism among a host of serving and retired officers who served in the region, this same senior officer said. Included in this group was former U.S. Central Command (Centcom) chief Anthony Zinni, who issued a harsh public condemnation of the appointment on the day that it was made public. "John Allen is a great guy," Zinni told a reporter on Sept. 12, "but does it take a retired general to coordinate a coalition? What is Centcom, chopped liver?… Who is really leading here — that is my question." 

The Allen appointment also sparked grumbling among a cadre of Marine Corps officers who had served in Iraq’s restive western province of Anbar during the Sunni Awakening of 2006 and 2007. In that period, the Marines serving under Gen. James Conway and Gen. James Mattis successfully kick-started the Anbar Awakening during a series of meetings with Sunni tribal heads in Amman, Jordan. While Allen served as deputy commanding general of the international forces in Anbar from 2006 to 2008, several senior officers and Defense Department officials involved in the Awakening say that Allen did not play a lead role in their effort and did not leave much of an impression.

"John Allen is taking a lot of credit for the work done by others," said one of the officers who served in a senior position under Conway. "I was in those meetings, and I don’t remember seeing him."

Allen also brought to his job a reputation among his fellow military officers for being "a boy scout," according to a currently serving officer who knows him well. "Allen is a rah-rah guy, and that’s fine, but he’s a little gullible," this officer said. The problem, this officer went on to say, is that while Allen "looks great in uniform," he’s now filling the role usually reserved for diplomats. "I don’t know how that’s going to work," the officer said, "since he’s never been one." Another senior civilian official who worked under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and saw Allen up close during the Anbar Awakening was even more dismissive: "He’s a parade-ground general," the official said. 

The tensions between Allen and senior uniformed officers became obvious within days of Allen’s appointment. When Allen requested that the Pentagon provide him with air transport to the region just days before his scheduled arrival in Iraq on Oct. 2, he was turned down by Austin’s staff, who told him to check with the State Department. It was a slight "that left Allen steaming," a former high-level civilian Pentagon official confirmed.

Allen’s first meeting with Anbari tribal leaders in Amman in early October only increased the doubts of some in the U.S. military that he was "in over his head." Supporting Anbar’s anti-Islamic State Sunni tribes in the fight is seen as key to coalition efforts to "degrade and destroy" the terrorist organization, so this first meeting was crucial for Allen. But the meeting was a failure, according to a senior Anbari leader who was in attendance and who communicated his worries to a former U.S. military officer with whom he’d worked during the Anbar Awakening.

The first problem, this leader said, was that Allen was accompanied to the meeting by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk, who also serves as his deputy envoy. McGurk is widely respected in the State Department, where he has served as a top advisor to three U.S. ambassadors to Iraq. But Anbar’s leaders view McGurk as a defender of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who marginalized Iraq’s Sunni community, purged the Iraqi military of Sunni leadership, and then declared martial law in Anbar when the tribes launched a protest movement. It wasn’t only the tribal leaders who thought McGurk was uncomfortably close to the Iraqi leader: In the State Department, he is known as the "Maliki whisperer."

The second problem was that, on the eve of Allen’s meeting in Amman, the Islamic State had overrun Hit, a Sunni city of just over 100,000 residents on the Euphrates River, a little more than 100 miles west of Baghdad. Iraqi Army units composed primarily of Shiite soldiers who were deployed to defend the city fled when the jihadists launched their attack, leaving Sunni tribal units outmanned and outgunned. The Sunni policemen kept fighting, but their commander was captured and beheaded.

Hit was lost, and the Islamic State imposed its own form of brutal retribution on those it captured. It publicly executed at least 46 tribesmen in the city square as a reminder to residents of the costs of opposing the jihadi group. 

The Hit operation was a stinging defeat for the tribes, which blamed the United States for failing to deliver badly needed heavy weapons to meet the threat. An Oct. 11 memorandum to Allen written by a respected Anbar tribal leader who’d attended the Amman meeting complained that the U.S. envoy had not kept his promise that he would put the tribes in contact with officers of U.S. Central Command, who could meet their needs for military and medical supplies. The result, this tribal leader wrote, was that the Islamic State would soon overrun several of Anbar’s cities. Although the tribes had "great respect" for Allen and "put faith" in his ability to "coordinate and work closely with them," he wrote, the feeling from the meeting was that Allen was "too busy to listen to their daily concerns and requirements." 

The view that Allen wasn’t up to his task gained increased currency last week, when Washington Post columnist David Ignatius provided an update on Allen’s meeting with the tribes. Ignatius noted that, since Allen’s meeting with tribal leaders in Amman, the situation in Anbar had actually worsened. Ignatius wrote that al-Zwaiha, the hometown of tribal leader Jalal al-Gaood, who met with Allen in Amman, was being threatened. Ignatius quoted Gaood as saying that Allen had promised Anbar’s leaders in Amman that he would put them "in touch with someone in Centcom," but that this had "never happened."

While the Ignatius column provided a litany of anti-Allen complaints from Anbar’s tribal leaders, there was a "ray of hope," as Ignatius put it. Ignatius quoted a Sunni leader as saying that Iraq’s Sunni community would turn against the Islamic State, as it did against al Qaeda in 2006 and 2007, if the United States would press Iraq’s government to recognize and address their political grievances. "We want to create a strategic relationship with the Americans," Ignatius quoted tribal leader Zaydan al-Jibouri as saying, because a political deal would provide "the light at the end of the tunnel."

Yet, despite the criticism of Allen by both the Anbar tribes and those in the Pentagon, the Obama administration appears strongly committed to his mission. And it’s not as if Allen, who served more than 35 years as a Marine officer, does not have his defenders: In the days following the Ignatius column, Allen partisans have been "circling the wagons," a senior Army officer who served in Baghdad during the Anbar Awakening and knows Allen well, says. "It takes time to get your feet on the ground, to get set up, to assess the situation, and to make decisions," the officer told me. "It’s a little much to be blaming John Allen for not resolving a crisis that the Obama White House didn’t even notice until August."

Allen has also fired off emails to supporters and detractors alike defending his record. In one email, he wrote that he was cautious in the Amman meeting for good reason — he did not want to create the "false impression" that he’s "focused on one place and one tribe and one outcome to the exclusion of all other places and all the other tribes in Iraq."

Allen is also quick to remind his detractors, albeit privately, that answering his critics takes valuable time away from his real mission. In an email defense to one of his critics, he noted that "while I’m writing this, I’m not building the coalition to help all Iraqis." Finally, as Allen noted in the same email, sorting through the demands for U.S. military action is not as straightforward a task as it seems.

Centcom officers confirm this point. In one recent 24-hour period, the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command in the region received hundreds of requests for air support from embattled Iraqi units, militias, and tribal leaders fighting the Islamic State, a senior Centcom officer told me. But the requests are nearly useless when they’re not accompanied by air or ground coordinates — and even then, it would be hours before an air operation could be mounted. Then too, the U.S. military response to the jihadi threat is not actually in the hands of Allen — but is under the direction of Austin, an Allen skeptic.

The public backbiting that greeted Obama’s appointment of John Allen as the administration’s special envoy may hinder U.S. efforts to fight the Islamic State in the short term, but for those with an even cursory knowledge of U.S. history, it’s nothing new. The United States’ greatest field commanders and best diplomats, from George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower to David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, were forced to fight two-front wars: not just against the country’s enemies, but against politicians, second-guessers, and competitors who always seem to have a better idea. The United States survived those crises because it had leaders who were willing to either dampen those conflicts — or convince the antagonists that there was far more at stake than their careers. Now, it’s up to Obama to repeat that feat and unite his military and diplomatic team behind the shared goal of defeating the Islamic State.

"OK, we know there’s a lot of huge egos involved in this and two of those egos belong to Lloyd Austin and John Allen," the senior retired officer who served in Baghdad during the Iraq War told me recently. "But it ought to be clear by now that what these guys need to do is swallow hard, stop sulking, and lean in. John Allen has been appointed by the president to do a job. That’s what the president wants. Now’s one of those times when you salute and say, ‘Yes, sir.’"

Mark Perry is a senior analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of ten books on foreign policy and military history.

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