One would think a man with four stars on his collar leading U.S. forces in Afghanistan just one year ago would have no problem working with military leadership in the fight against militants of the so-called Islamic State at present.
But for retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who was appointed by President Obama in September as special envoy to lead the global coalition to counter the militant group, that calculus has been wrong.
An article posted at Foreign Policy on Thursday by Mark Perry lists a surprising number of detractors to Allen’s appointment, including many in and out of uniform. The most obvious rift comes from Gen. Lloyd Austin, the man in charge of Central Command, tasked with carrying out the military plan to “degrade and destroy” ISIL, the administration’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
“Why the hell do we need a special envoy — isn’t that what [Secretary of State] John Kerry’s for?” a senior officer close to Austin told Perry, of the potential for confusion since Gen. Allen reports directly to President Obama.
Allen, 60, was given an incredibly difficult task upon his appointment. With the Islamic State consuming much of Iraq and Syria and boasting roughly 31,000 fighters, his role as special envoy is to “help build and sustain the coalition,” and coordinate their efforts, according to the State Department.
But Allen — now inside the State Department and no longer wearing military rank — commands a role not very far outside the scope of duties of Gen. Austin at Centcom, who is charged with overseeing relationships, offering military support, and carrying out operations when necessary in 20 Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq and Syria.
Indeed, Gen. James Mattis — the commander before Austin at Centcom — demonstrated a perfect example of the military’s ability to build coalitions without outside support, in retelling how he got 29 nations together to counter Iran’s attempt to mine the Strait of Hormuz.
“The military overseas can do more than simply reinforce foreign policy,” Mattis said earlier this year. “We can also buy time for the diplomats to do their magic.”
It became apparent after only a few days of Allen’s appointment that a turf war had emerged.
Via Foreign Policy:
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.
Even Gen. Anthony Zinni — himself a former Centcom commander who later served as special envoy to Israel for peace talks in 2002 — was critical of Allen’s appointment (via The Tampa Tribune):
“John Allen is a great guy, but does it take a retired general to coordinate a coalition? What is Centcom, chopped liver? Did Norman Schwarzkopf get some retired general? Who is really leading here, that is my question.”
And there are many more gripes noted by military officers who spoke on condition of anonymity to Foreign Policy. One derides Allen as “a boy scout.” Another, noting his new role as a quasi-diplomat though he’s never been one, said “I don’t know how that’s going to work.”
For many of the military’s top leaders it seems, having a retired general like Allen outside of the military chain-of-command reporting to Obama is a sign of White House “micromanagement.” It also offers the possibility of conflicting messages between State and the Pentagon in the fight against ISIL.
“We are getting a lot of micromanagement from the White House. Basic decisions that should take hours are taking days sometimes,” one senior defence official told The Daily Beast.
But perhaps the most devastating critique comes from one of the tribal leaders that US forces need to support in pushing back the Islamic State. As militants battled for control of the home town of Jalal al-Gaood in Iraq’s Anbar province, the man desperately tried to reach Allen to ask for assistance, but it was too late.
“Gen. Allen said, ‘I will put you in touch with someone in Centcom.’ But it never happened,” Gaood told The Washington Post’s David Ignatius. “Every time the Iraqis meet with Americans, they just take notes.”
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