New U.S. Czar for Anti-ISIS Fight Will Inherit ‘Job From Hell’

Brett McGurk will face the same problems as his predecessor: a cumbersome strategy and a lack of bureaucratic muscle.


The White House is ready to name an experienced diplomat to serve as the new U.S. envoy in the war against the Islamic State, but the next czar will face the same constraints and bureaucratic turf wars that frustrated his predecessor.

Administration officials said Thursday that President Barack Obama plans to name Ambassador Brett McGurk, the current number two in the administration’s campaign to defeat the Islamic State, to the post within the next few days. McGurk helped craft the status of forces agreement with Baghdad that led to the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq in 2011 and has helped shape Washington’s relationship with Iraq ever since.

McGurk will take over from retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who is due to step down after one year on the job. Allen, a member of the State Department, had clashed repeatedly with the U.S. military during his tenure and lacked the authority to force the Pentagon or other government agencies to follow his directives.

McGurk worked closely with Allen, and the two men have similar views about how to confront the Islamic State. Unfortunately for the diplomat, McGurk will also be confronted with the same dilemmas and obstacles that Allen faced.

Unlike some czars from previous campaigns, McGurk will continue to be based in the State Department, not the White House, and will not be a member of the president’s National Security Council. That means he, like Allen, will have to defer to U.S. military commanders and won’t have the power to force changes to a strategy that is currently struggling in its stated goal of defeating the armed group.

“Nobody is going to do any better than John Allen unless the president says, ‘This counts,’ and the way to do that would be to say, ‘He’s working directly for me,’” said Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan under the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.

“Otherwise, it will be the job from hell, and I don’t see why anyone would want it,” he told Foreign Policy, adding, “Either you don’t have an envoy at all or you give him or her real clout.”

Some previous czars for U.S. war efforts worked inside the White House, including Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who oversaw the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan as a deputy national security advisor. Lute also clashed with the Pentagon, but because he was seen to be speaking on behalf of the commander in chief and not the State Department, he held more sway than the current envoy in the anti-Islamic State fight, former officials said.

The administration so far has ruled out bolstering the envoy’s powers or moving the position to the White House, administration officials said, though the move has been discussed internally.

A senior official told FP that “the administration is very pleased with the way this is working and has no plans to alter that arrangement.”

As the chief envoy leading the 62-nation coalition, McGurk’s job will involve crisscrossing the region to press allied governments to find ways of more effectively preventing recruits from traveling to Iraq and Syria, cutting off financing to the Islamic State, and countering the extremist group’s ideology. Supporters of the current arrangement say those tasks are precisely the kinds of diplomatic missions best carried out by a member of the State Department.

White House officials also insisted that both Allen and McGurk have been central to all major decisions made in the campaign against the Islamic State and have not been excluded from White House deliberations.

But Jim Jeffrey, a former senior diplomat and U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said, “The job is in the wrong place.”

He recounted serving as deputy presidential envoy to Bosnia in the 1990s and being sidelined by the Pentagon.

“As long as I sat in the State Department, the Defense Department made it clear they didn’t want to hear me,” Jeffrey said. “My job was to deal with the civilian stuff.”

The debate over the proper role and authority for the envoy’s office reflects a wider argument over the Obama administration’s approach to the war against the Islamic State.

Hawks such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) portray the Islamic State threat as primarily a military challenge that requires decisive American action on the battlefield. But the Obama administration has made clear that it sees the campaign as a broader effort in which politics and diplomacy play an equally important role in undermining the Islamist group’s power and appeal to alienated Sunnis.

From the outset, Allen’s appointment in September 2014 rankled senior commanders who questioned why a retired four-star general should be named to lead what they considered a diplomatic post.

Tensions flared in February when a senior officer from U.S. Central Command told a press briefing at the Pentagon that an Iraqi Army offensive to recapture the northern city of Mosul would be launched in April or May. The Pentagon had to quickly back off that prediction, which angered the Iraqi government and left Allen dumbfounded that the military would publicly signal the timing of future operations.

Soon after taking the envoy position, Allen, who led American troops in Anbar province from 2006 to 2008, found himself fielding desperate phone calls and emails in the middle of the night from Sunni tribal leaders seeking American military assistance to fend off Islamic State militants.

In one case, members of the Abu Nimr tribe — who had fought with Allen against al Qaeda in Iraq — said they were about to be overrun by the militants and begged for U.S. airstrikes. Allen relayed their request to U.S. military commanders, but no bombing operation was launched. The tribe suffered heavy casualties, and several of its leaders were either killed or captured by the Islamic State. An official close to Allen said the retired general was personally devastated by his inability to help what he saw as trusted and valuable Iraqi allies.

“Gen. Allen is a quality flag officer, who was put in a no-win situation,” said one former military commander familiar with the campaign against the Islamic State. “I think there was not a clear delineation of responsibility, which produces friction in an already ambiguous, dangerous situation.”

One senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged there had been acrimony between the envoy’s office and the Pentagon.

“Certainly, there was some friction with the Pentagon,” the official said. “But that friction waned over time.”

The official added that Allen’s frustration with the military was not the reason he had chosen to step down. “If that was the case, he would left long ago,” the official said.

A U.S. Central Command spokesman denied there had been clashes with Allen’s office.

“Claims that there’s tension or friction between CENTCOM and Gen. Allen are completely inaccurate,” said Col. Patrick Ryder in an email. “As should be expected in any large scale endeavor involving numerous U.S. and international organizations, such as the counter-ISIL fight, there will be many different viewpoints going forward on how best to accomplish mission objectives.”

But those differences are “healthy” and produce a better result in the end, Ryder added.

Allen, who served as commander of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, came to the job after having criticized Obama for pulling American troops out of Iraq in 2011 and urging the president to take robust military action to stop the advance of the Islamic State.

His office was created in September of last year and charged with building and maintaining an international coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militants, as stated by the president in an announcement at the time.

From the beginning, Allen disagreed with the president’s use of the word “destroy,” preferring instead the term “defeat” because it reflected a more realistic goal for coalition efforts.

When asked by a Der Spiegel reporter last December about Obama’s use of the word, Allen offered a more modest characterization of the coalition’s endgame.

“It’s important to have a clear understanding of what we ultimately seek. I don’t believe that the president intended to imply the ‘annihilation’ of Daesh. That is far beyond our thinking in this regard,” Allen said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Annihilation requires a great deal of investment, resources and time.”

Both skeptics and supporters of Obama’s war strategy have given Allen high marks for maintaining what is at least a nominal coalition stretching from Britain to Malaysia and for securing emergency international funding to help rebuild Tikrit and other areas recaptured from the Islamic State.

Allen also played a vital role in persuading Turkey to allow U.S. aircraft to begin flying combat missions against the Islamic State from Incirlik air base in July, a move that followed months of laborious negotiations with Ankara and that cut down flight times for American warplanes.

The next envoy, McGurk, 42, has spent much of the past decade navigating Iraq’s sectarian politics for Washington. A lawyer by training who once worked as a clerk to former Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, McGurk was one of the architects behind Bush’s decision to surge more troops into Iraq and negotiated the status of forces agreement that laid down the terms for the eventual withdrawal of American troops.

He was one of a handful of officials from the Bush administration to stay on under Obama. Nominated by Obama in 2012 to be ambassador to Iraq, McGurk withdrew his name after the leak of racy emails between him and a Wall Street Journal reporter. The two have since gotten married.

McGurk will take the helm only weeks after Russia entered directly into the war in Syria, launching a wave of bombing raids against opponents of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Moscow has touted its intervention as a campaign against the Islamic State and other “terrorists,” an assertion dismissed by Washington. But some Shiite leaders in Iraq have heartily welcomed Russia’s action.

One of McGurk’s top priorities will be to lobby the Baghdad government not to give in to overtures from Moscow to possibly host Russian aircraft at air bases in Iraq. That will be a heavy lift: Multiple Iraqi officials have hinted that they support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria and are open to him launching one inside their country as well.

Photo credit: Ed Johnson/FP

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