Full Transcript: Martha Raddatz Interviews General John Allen

PHOTO: General John Allen is interviewed by ABC News Martha Raddatz. ABC News
General John Allen is interviewed by ABC News' Martha Raddatz.

MARTHA RADDATZ: I-- I actually wanna start with you because it is 9/11 today. And-- and today just your memories of that day and here we are 14 years later.

GENERAL ALLEN: I was a deputy commandant, a midshipman at the Naval Academy. I was in a meeting. Someone walked in the room and said, "We've just learned that an aircraft has crashed into one of the towers-- in-- World Trade Center in New York." A few minutes later, a second crash occurred, and we knew that our lives were gonna be different forever, really gonna be changed. So we watched the towers collapse. We took the reports of the impact at the Pentagon.

We began to mobilize our medical capacity at Annapolis and send it here, sent it to Washington to help. And I knew at that point that-- in the years to come I would not just be trying to educate midshipmen, I will ultimately be leading them-- in the war that would follow. And then ten years to the day after that, I would find myself-- addressing my troops-- as the commander in Afghanistan.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And today, when you look at the world, you see this terrible, terrible refugee crisis, when you look at those streams refugees, when you look at the powerful photo that has gone around the world of the-- of the young boy-- and I know you have a young grandson, what do you think? And what responsibility do we bear?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, my heart goes out to all of them immediately. My prayers are with all of them that they'll find security and safe haven wherever their travels will take them-- that we as a community of nations will have the compassion to take them in and to care for them and to help them to solve this emergency.

But I also, by virtue of the job that I have today-- recognize that we have a responsibility that we have shouldered to deal with the root causes of much of this humanitarian crisis-- which is the crisis in the Middle East, whether it's the Syrian civil war or the emergence of this organization that we call ISIL or Daash. And that's what goes through my mind.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And yet here we are, and you've been doing this for a long time. I know you have said it's not gonna be easy, it's not gonna be fast. But are we today at a place where you thought we would be?

GENERAL ALLEN: As I said when I took this job, this was gonna be a long term endeavor. It's gonna be a multi year effort. And where we were a year ago today, I wasn't sure how it was gonna unfold, to be quite honest with you. We were facing some-- some real-- uphill battles, some real difficult moments. Mosul had fallen, and we were witness to atrocities the like of which we had never seen before.

The Iraqi security forces were being defeated. Daash had turned on the Kurds, they had scattered and enslaved large segments of the Yazidi population. Much of the border of Syria and Turkey had-- had now disappeared into their control. It was not clear to me even that Iraq would survive this-- a year ago today.

In the intervening months we've seen remarkable progress in many respects. We've seen the emergence of a capable leader and-- and a partner in Baghdad in the form of Haider al-Abadi. He's just finished his first year in office. Between his national program, his outreach to the Sunnis-- his plan for Al Anbar, his outreach to the region, his close relationship with His Eminence the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. We find in him a hope for a political future in Iraq that we couldn't have seen under other leadership and we haven't seen before.

And without a political platform, without a political resolution to this conflict, no matter what we do militarily will not solve this crisis overall. We've seen a coalition come into existence in the intervening months between those days and today, a coalition that has worked very hard to stem the flow of foreign fighters, to impede the finances of Daash as they've attempted to support their operations in Iraq and Syria that have sought to compete with the message of hate and toxic ideology that Daash has had, but also to deal with the humanitarian crisis.

And then we've seen the military aspects of what's been undertaken. We've been working very hard to recover and to retrain and to commit the Iraqi security forces, about 12,000 have been trained. 3,500 more are-- are in the hopper, about 2,000 more are in the field. The Kurds have recovered all the ground that was lost in the North. And they're continuing to attack and they're continuing to have effect.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And yet Mosul is still controlled by ISIS--

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, let me--

MARTHA RADDATZ: --Fallujah is still controlled by ISIS.

GENERAL ALLEN: --you’re exactly correct, and we're not done. There's much work to be done. This goes to the long term nature of this conflict and the fact that we're working very hard to empower the Iraqi security forces to do this, and the tribal elements as well, not just the-- the Army, not just the counterterrorism service, but the tribes and the police as well.

But we've had some real successes. Tikrit was taken back by-- by Iraqi security forces. Tikritis are returning home now. You were there. You actually saw the fight unfold. And in Syria-- in that-- that place called Kobani, where we thought we would see another horrendous massacre occur-- brave defenders supported that coalition, ultimately held the city and-- and branched out later to take not just the-- the district but-- most of the Iraqi-- most of the Syrian and Turkish border is now in the hands of folks that we're supporting. And they pushed Daash well off that border and closed the principle crossing point from Turkey into Syria.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Let's talk about Kobani. Kobani remains desolate, dangerous, 70% of the city destroyed before the U.S. air strikes. And many of those refugees, including that three-year-old boy, his brother and mother, were from Kobani. They can't go back.

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, the intent course is to create the humanitarian conditions where they can go back, to rebuild the city. And that process is underway. And-- and sadly, of course-- many of the young-- individuals who had intended to go back to improve the life in Kobani were killed in that-- that terrorist attack in Saruch -- that prevented them from doing that.

But it is the intent, both in terms of the Turks in providing the capacity for that to occur and the-- the coalition and our international partners, to do all that we can so support the population's return to Kobani and other places that have been devastated by ISIL's activities.

MARTHA RADDATZ: I wanna go back to the refugees again and I wanna talk about Syria. You look at Iraq and you talk about Iraq and you talk about the progress and you talk about Kobani. According to the institute of a study of where ISIS controls more territory now than this time last year in Syria, reports they just took a key airbase in the east, they seized Assad's last oil field, 330,000 dead, 4 million refugees, four and a half years of war. Syria looks worse to most people, especially when they see those lines of refugees.

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, Syria, of course, is one of the reasons that we have this humanitarian capacity-- humanitarian catastrophe in the region and the-- the lack of capacity to deal with-- those numbers. United States-- prominent among the international community is has donated the$4 billion to the relief of refugees in that region, in particular into Syria. Other members of the coalition other international partners have donated a great deal of money.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Give me your assessment of Syria right now--


MARTHA RADDATZ: --the honest assessment. You were such a load voice to get in, to do something about ISIS and Iraq and especially-- but Syria is still such a huge problem.

GENERAL ALLEN: And we know that. And-- and the-- efforts that we're undertaking in Syria to deal with Daash I think have paid off in many respects. And-- the Institute for the Study of War's an outstanding organization. And in fact-- we-- we get a lot of help from them sometimes in-- the work that we-- that we do.

But there has been enormous-- progress in pushing-- Daash off the border of Syria and Turkey ultimately to close that border, to prevent-- the flow of foreign fighters to support Daash. We've got people that we support who are within 45 kilometers of Rocca. We couldn't have imagined that just six months ago, threatening the center of gravity--


GENERAL ALLEN: --but there-- but let me-- but this is an important point that Syria is never going to be solved militarily. Syria has got to be solved at a political level. Syria has got to have a political transition away from Bashar al-Assad. He can't be part of the solution. And so we have to be in constant conversation with our international partners and ultimately with the opposition elements in Syria to effect that-- that transition. Because the expanding or supporting the fight on the ground just increases the violence and it increases the conflict. And then it increases the refugee and humanitarian catastrophe that we face.

MARTHA RADDATZ: A lot of refugees are saying it's not ISIS, it's-- it's Assad's--


GENERAL ALLEN: It is, it is.

MARTHA RADDATZ: --they're fleeing.


MARTHA RADDATZ: So would you like or would you recommend that we start focusing on Assad’s forces?

GENERAL ALLEN: What I recommend is that we focus on a political transition that removes Assad and removes the-- the leadership and=the manner in which he has led this conflict. Back in 2011, when the Arab Spring had such promise in many countries, it had great promise in Syria. But he chose, rather than to listen to the dissidents, he chose to attack them. And that create a sequence of events that has delivered us to where we are today.

MARTHA RADDATZ: 2011 is when President Obama said he had to go. He has not-- he has not gone. There has not been a political solution. And it's getting worse for the people who live there. It's getting worse for the refugees.

GENERAL ALLEN: And we'll work very hard to try to have that political solution. And we'll continue to work with our external partners. In the meantime, we'll s-- we'll support those elements within the Iraqi within the Syrian population which can ultimately win back the ground on which they can create some modicum of control. And hopefully by empowering the men, either militarily or politically, have them be a voice at the table when the time comes ultimately for the political transition to begin.

MARTHA RADDATZ: You've had about 6,700, I think, coalition air strikes in-- in Iraq and Syria, about 2,200, I think, in Syria. Is that enough? We're clearly not using the full force of our air power capabilities. Why not?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, I'd leave that to the military ultimately to make that judgment-- and-- and our very capable commanders-- and the comman-- the chairman of the joint chiefs. I'd have them make that comment. But we are supporting those elements-- that are accomplishing significant progress in the battle space in Syria.

And we're providing significant support to the Syrian-- to the Iraqi security forces on the field-- in both Al Anbar province and Saladin. But I-- I-- but I would leave the numbers and-- and the quantities of air strikes, I would leave that judgment ultimately to the military.

MARTHA RADDATZ: This week there were reports that ISIS is using crude chemical weapons. Have you seen reports like that?

GENERAL ALLEN: We've seen reports of it. But-- we're obviously looking for the analysis on it so that we can understand both the sources-- if-- if in fact it's true-- the-- the sources of the-- of the chemicals-- how they're produced-- how they're moved, how they could be employed. It's very important for us to understand that.


GENERAL ALLEN: But-- but I've not seen the reports of the conclusions.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And I know you can't discuss an IG report that's going on right now, but the Senate also wants to take up the question of whether the intelligence coming out of, particularly central command, is good intelligence, if they're over inflating the progress. Do you feel you're getting the best intelligence?

GENERAL ALLEN: I get my information from a lot of sources-- from across the intelligence community, from the diplomatic community, from contacts in the region, from great organizations that are studying this. You mentioned one a few minutes ago, the Institute for the Study of War. I-- I get my information from a lot of different products and subjects. But I'm not gonna comment on the-- on the need for an investigation or the progress of an investigation.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And the Russians—reading a buildup there-- several aircraft there. Can you just give us the latest on what the Russians are up to and what that will mean?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, we'll watch the developments. We'll watch what they're doing. I don't wanna speculate right now because we haven't seen the full deployment-- go in. And we've said all along that-- we welcome the constructive contributions of-- of many-- partners around the world, and we would-- welcome that constructive contribution-- from the Russians as well. What we would opposed, though-- is any addition or any support to the Assad regime that expands or accelerates the conflict.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Does it appear at this point they're-- they're trying to build an air hub?

GENERAL ALLEN: It's too early for me to speculate on that.

MARTHA RADDATZ: But definitely aircraft there?

GENERAL ALLEN: I've not seen that.

MARTHA RADDATZ: You haven't seen any Russian aircraft--


GENERAL ALLEN: I've not seen that.

MARTHA RADDATZ: I-- I wanna go back to the training and the training of the moderate Syrian rebels. And I think the first 50-something were devastated, were killed, and-- and the training clearly did not go the way you wanted it to go. What are your lessons learned? What do you do differently?

GENERAL ALLEN: Well, Department of Defense is embracing what has been learned from this. And I'll leave it for them to comment on the specifics associated with that. But we remain wedded to the principle that by empowering moderate Syrian or those reliable Syrian elements, vetted Syrian elements that we can partner with that we can accomplish our objectives on the ground, which is ultimately to degrade and to defeat Daash.

So we did learn from that. We'll apply those lessons in the future. But it's important to recognize that we also work closely with other opposition elements on the ground. And I think I've already described some of that, but preponderance of the Syrian/Turkish border has been taken back from Daash and Daash had been pushed well off of that border.

We've closed the principle crossing point at Tell Abyad, and we have elements of those forces within 45 kilometers of Rocca, so we-- we have seen a good example of when we can-- enable and empower-- those elements-- that are ready to fight-- we'll support them in fighting.

MARTHA RADDATZ: I-- I wanna go back to the refugees just one more time. And we have heard from people on the Hill, and you-- you know ISIS, you know Daash, you know their capabilities. We have heard from some on the Hill who say there is a potential Jihadi pipeline if we bring these refugees in quickly, if we bring these people who are fleeing Syria in quickly, and they call it a national security threat. Do you agree?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think we should watch it. We should be-- conscious of the potential that-- Daash may attempt to embed-- agents—within that population. But I also have to tell you I have tremendous confidence-- in the work that has been and is being done-- by Director Comey-- with the FBI and with-- Secretary Johnson in the Federal Bureau-- or with—director, the secretary of Homeland Security-- the attorney general and Department of Justice, they've done tremendous work in protecting us domestically. And as I have watched their efforts unfold, and as we would see the potential for infiltrators to be in these refugee columns I have confidence that they'll work very, very hard to prevent them from getting into the country.

MARTHA RADDATZ: But is it a potential national security threat?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think it's a threat. We need to understand-- the totality of it, I think, before we could brand it a national security threat. But it's clearly something we should be thinking about. And I-- I've great confidence, frankly, in the director of the FBI and-- Secretary Johnson to be thinking in those terms.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And-- and just a final question, again, we're here this week on the anniversary of 9/11. You have been looking at ISIS and the threat they pose. Does ISIS pose a threat to the homeland as we sit here?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think we should take that threat very seriously and-- and just explain that-- certainly the director of the FBI takes that threat very seriously-- and the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security takes that threat very seriously. The attorney general takes that threat very seriously. So we should, and we should take those measures necessary I every possible way that we can-- to prevent that threat from being fulfilled.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And-- and we look at the threat in different ways. There's-- there's the lone wolf, there's someone who's been inspired by ISIS. Do you think ISIS as an organization has the capability to carry out a catastrophic attack on the U.S.?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think it may be their aspiration-- to attack the United States, either as you said, by-- inspired-- attacks or directed attacks. But I have again-- confidence that we're going to work very hard to try to understand-- that planning from a distance. We-- as you probably are well aware, we've just-- attacked and eliminated Junaid Hussein-- who was one of the-- the principle hubs within-- Daash that has been attempting to facilitate those kinds of attacks on the homelands of the coalition.

And by eliminating him, we have been able to disrupt the front of the pipeline-- on how that attack might be planned and carried out. We'll continue to rely on the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to be the-- that element within-- the United States to protect us domestically from the fulfillment of that threat.

So we're going to attack that-- that potential challenge across this entire pipeline from where it originates all the way to conceivably where it might be fulfilled. And-- and I think it's getting a lot of attention and lot of resources to protect the American people.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Where do you think we'll be a year from today in Iraq and Syria?

GENERAL ALLEN: I think we'll see-- a continued evolution of political stability-- in-- the-- in the government of-- Haider al-Abadi. I think we'll see continued-- tactical developments-- that will increase the stability in those areas-- where Daash had held sway.

We're already beginning to see what the return of somewhere around 100,000 families or people back to Tikrit. We're beginning to see the outcome of liberated areas. So we'll see more of Iraq back in the hands of Iraqi authorities. We'll see populations going home. And I-- I think we'll see the continuation of the fulfillment of the strategy.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Thank you very much, General Allen.

GENERAL ALLEN: It's good to see you again, Martha.