Retired United States General John Allen spent nearly 40 years serving in the US Marine Corps.
He was trained at the US Naval Academy to fight and defeat large conventional militaries, the sort fielded by the likes of the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.
But now, Allen is tasked with leading the international fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). And that, Allen told me during our recent interview, requires a different set of skills.
Patience is probably at the top of the list. Allen said ISIL fighters have been well-trained and know how to evade the enemy (meaning members of the coalition).
So he says the coalition has to be willing to commit time – likely several years at least – and a lot of money to shutting down ISIL’s military capacity.
But he also said ISIL has a seductive message, one that appeals to vulnerable people, particularly those living in the West.
And that, says Allen, will be much harder to undermine. He recognises that it’s a complicated task, but ISIL’s propaganda can and will be undermined by counter-messaging efforts now launching in the UAE and elsewhere.
Finally, Allen says it’s not enough to fight ISIL, reclaim territory, and plant a flag in victory.
He says communities will need help to rebuild – economically and socially – and that the coalition does have a responsibility to prevent sectarian tensions from deepening, especially in Iraq.
He worries that people aren’t looking closely enough at the need for humanitarian support in areas once under ISIL control – and that is a job he says he will make sure is tackled.
Is this the war Allen imagined he would be fighting? No, it’s not.
But Allen says it’s the war he has a duty to fight.