Frontlines Online Edition
Global Health/Iraq
April/May 2011

Exclusive Interview with CENTCOM's Lt. Gen. John R. Allen

USAID's "Inma" agribusiness project provides assistance to farmers in the Hillah province.  Credit: Louis Berger
Lt. Gen. John R. Allen became deputy commander, United States Central Command, on July 15, 2008. His tours as a general officer include service as the principal director, Asian and Pacific Affairs, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a position he occupied for nearly three years. From 2006-2008, Allen served as deputy commanding general, II Marine Expeditionary Force, and commanding general, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, deploying to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom. On April 28, 2011, President Barack Obama nominated him to take Gen. David Petraeus' place as commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Following is Lt. Gen. Allen's exclusive interview with FrontLines regarding his time in Iraq and the relationship between USAID and the military.

FrontLines: When was the first time you heard of USAID and what we do?

Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, USMC
Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, USMC

Lt. Gen. John Allen: My first memories of contact with USAID go back to when I was a young marine officer serving in the Mediterranean with the 6th Fleet in the 1970s. During those early, formative years, we frequently interacted with various country teams in the region, and it was then that I had my first professional contact with USAID.

However, I never fully appreciated the power and capability of the institution until the South Asia tsunami of 2004-2005 when I ran the DOD [Department of Defense] Task Force in Washington responding to the crisis. From the outset of that emergency, and throughout the first several weeks, I worked with key USAID leaders to assist the distressed region. In particular, we created an innovative liaison and partnership relationship extending from the Pacific Command in Hawaii down to the units involved in the actual rescue, relief, and reconstruction efforts. From the beginning, the respective country teams’ USAID mission leadership tied in seamlessly with our efforts. In the end, our military forces surging to the area to provide assistance were strengthened by USAID’s on-scene experience and knowledge, enabling us to provide desperately needed support. It was a remarkable partnership that saved thousands of lives.

FL: You served in Iraq from 2006-2008, during what was known as “the surge.” A key element of the surge was the deployment of joint civilian-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) to improve U.S. engagement with Iraqis. Can you comment on this relationship?

Allen: My tour was in the Al Anbar province, which was profoundly dangerous at the beginning of this period, particularly for civilian undertakings. Our PRT, given the security situation, was undermanned at the time because there was little opportunity for development activities. At a point about half-way through our tour in 2007, the battlefield conditions changed dramatically as the tribes sided with our coalition forces and Al Qaeda elements were largely defeated.

As we “sensed” the battle space was now significantly different, we saw this as the opportunity to bring permanence to the conditions created by our security operations. We held a development summit at Camp Fallujah attended by the USAID mission director for Iraq. While at the summit, she saw the opportunity as well and assigned a seasoned USAID leader to the PRT and reprogrammed resources from elsewhere in Iraq to Al Anbar. As a result of her efforts, USAID proved its battlefield agility and resourcefulness and our development effort really took off.

Shortly after this meeting in Fallujah, State and USAID instituted the innovative ePRT (embedded PRT) concept, with experienced USAID leadership assigned to the effort. This focused support put the right people in the right place at the right time and subsequently achieved truly remarkable progress across this enormous province in a relatively short period, cementing the gains we had achieved in the security environment.

FL: What kinds of challenges are inherent in the development/military relationship?

Allen: It’s largely in the sequencing. Ten years ago, I’d have said it was cultural. Not today. Yes, the development and military cultures are inherently different, but after a decade of war, where our paths in many ways are now inextricably linked, our institutional cultures are largely in harmony and we draw strength from the relationship. This includes development NGOs as well. We’ve all become quite used to each other.

In terms of sequencing, getting the right kind of development moving immediately in the aftermath of, and even in parallel with military operations, is the “art” of leveraging the relationship between military and development functions. This comes from the military and development entities conducting detailed bilateral planning and resource allocation, aggressive execution, comprehensive measurement and assessment, and long-term sustainment. I’ve read a bit about Gertrude Bell, a British explorer, archaeologist, scholar, spy, and executive secretary to Sir Percy Cox in Mesopotamia in the British Mandatory period. She once commented on the necessity for a close military/development relationship on the battlefield: “Before the smoke of conflict has lifted, within the hearing of the guns, the work of reconstruction has been initiated.”

When the development and military entities are closely tied together in planning and execution—“within the hearing of the guns”—we have all the ingredients for success. While there remains room for improvement, we’re far more advanced and effective in this relationship than we were just 10 years ago.

FL: Are there any specific examples or success stories you can cite regarding military and USAID collaboration?

Allen: While this interview asked me to concentrate in general on my Iraq experiences, the examples of USAID and development successes are legion and include the Pakistan earthquake in 2005, ongoing and very effective development efforts in Afghanistan, and the massive flooding in Pakistan in 2010. They are numerous and they are significant.

Regarding the South Asian tsunami, I would read the history of the really remarkable success of the collaboration of the U.S. military with the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and USAID. While the military flowed forces and capabilities to the relief effort, the close partnership of the U.S. forces on the ground with OFDA, USAID, the country teams, the host nations, and the NGO community created as smooth a transition as possible, from relief to reconstruction, all in the face of truly epic destruction. Given the magnitude of this catastrophe, Americans can be very proud of all that USAID and the development community accomplished in Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.

In Al Anbar, Iraq, I watched with admiration as the PRT and the ePRTs developed the capacity for credible local, district, and provincial governance, while vital infrastructure and businesses were restored and economic activity was stimulated. Once Al Qaeda had been defeated, the people felt they were secure in their homes and communities. They felt they were responsibly governed with their livelihoods restored, and the resulting positive synergy from successful security and development operations turned Al Anbar from being one of the most problematic of the Iraqi provinces to one of the most progressive … in less than a year.

FL: How can we work better on the ground?

Allen: For the military, working better on the ground with USAID can come specifically from establishing a close working relationship with the USAID elements which will be operating with or alongside the military units. During periods of conflict, this ideally begins at the unit’s home station before the deployment and continues without interruption right down to the ground level during the deployment and employment. If we’ve done this right, USAID or development personnel who’ll be in the same area have had the chance to participate in the military unit’s training during its preparations and in its mission rehearsal exercises prior to deployment.

This is really a function of our key leaders proactively seeking each other out to coordinate and collaborate the execution of our efforts at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. As a commander, I have always wanted a close liaison relationship with USAID when in execution of military operations. That relationship helps me “sense” that right moment when committing development resources can enhance the effects being achieved through military operations.

Beyond the need to integrate during the different phases of deployment, there is great value to be found in studying and respecting each others’ operational cultures, to include attending each others’ training and schools. In areas not in conflict, military elements should create and maintain early relationships with the country teams’ USAID mission directors.

In the course of CENTCOM’s security assistance efforts, there will be few undertakings that will not have some effect in the realm of development. Our commander, Gen. [James N.] Mattis, has directed we create the closest possible working relationships with the country teams where we will ensure scarce resources are put to best effect inside the ambassadors’ and USAID’s overall national development plan.

FL: The U.S. military seems to be increasing its “development-like” activities around the globe. How would you differentiate the activities of the military from those of USAID to ensure that there is not overlap or duplication of efforts? Are there “lanes” that we need to stay in?

Allen: Let me respond to the latter question first. If we’re operating in “lanes,” we’re sub-optimizing. Yes, there are areas and capabilities that favor the military capabilities over those of USAID, and vice versa. But our work and our relationships cannot be defined by sharp lines … or lanes which separate us. There will be clear moments when the military will have lead, and there will be times when development resources will need to be committed that have little to do with specific military operations. Understanding how this is best harmonized is the responsibility of both military and development professionals. Because of who we are and how we’re resourced, the U.S. military will generally be on the battlefield before the development entities, and will likely be significantly better resourced … at least at the outset. With both DOD and USAID facing a resource constrained future operating environment, there has never been a more important time than now to leverage the relationships we’ve created and the respective capabilities we bring to the development problem set.

To the first part of the question, as we start our second decade of counterinsurgency efforts in CENTCOM, it has become clear to us that one of the best ways we can defend our nation is to prevent factors that combine in our region which severely stress social systems … ultimately creating a critical mass of hopelessness, and frequently leading to insurgency and conflict. Indeed, the social turmoil playing out in our region, the so-called Arab Spring, is a direct result of these societal forces boiling over. As we contemplate military operations, we employ a spectrum of activity to help us plan and execute our campaigns: beginning with Phase 0, Shape; followed by Phase 1, Deter; Phase 2, Seize the Initiative; Phase 3, Dominate; Phase 4, Stabilize; and Phase 5, Enable Civil Authority.

Once we’ve established the conditions of Phase 5, we return once again to Phase 0, where we seek to shape the operating environment to prevent conflict. I should emphasize that movement along this spectrum is not linear … it’s fluid … and in Afghanistan, for example, it is possible to be in different phases depending on where you are in the country. With this phasing construct in mind, the military is increasingly concerned with preventing conflict ... or as we say, “winning in Phase 0 – Shaping operations.”

We see Phase 0 efforts being very much in direct support of an ambassador’s goals. Our intent in Phase 0 is to partner with our country teams to develop plans to increase the capacity of host nation security forces. Ideally, if we can get this phase right, we never need to go to Phase 1 or beyond. Specifically, we seek to support the creation of conditions under which development programs, of all forms, can advance the success of governance, create or stimulate economic activity, and improve the quality of life of the population in the partner nation. So, while there may be development-like activities in which our military may be involved, it’s intended to be in support of, and nested within, the ambassador’s country plan.

None of this should be interpreted as the military getting out of the fighting business. That’s our core competency and we’re very capable in this area. However, the advantages of long-term relationships with USAID, honed to a fine edge by our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, have proven to be very effective and are now being applied throughout the CENTCOM region in many countries where we’re seeking to support the ambassador and USAID mission director win in Phase 0, so we never have to go to Phase 1.

FL: What have been the greatest effects of development/foreign aid that you’ve witnessed in your area of command?

Allen: There have been multiple significant effects: agricultural assistance, opportunities for improved access to schools and education, assistance to women and children, improved health care, infrastructure development, and the delivery of electricity. While this is a short list, and certainly is not exhaustive, the projects behind these broad categories are myriad, and the benefits to the people and the governments of the CENTCOM region have been, and continue to be, enormous. In that vein, there are few symbols of America more poignant and with greater “brand recognition” than the “handclasp” logo of USAID emblazoned on bags of flour or containers of nutritional biscuits or on boxes of educational supplies. All of these measures combine to improve quality of life, reduce tension, extend governance, create opportunities and enable us to successfully accomplish our missions.

FL: Under the Obama administration, USAID is shifting away from traditional “Band-Aid” aid models to one that focuses on boosting local capacity. The military seems to follow a similar philosophy. How has this been playing out on the ground in places such as Iraq?

Allen: As our security situation improved in the Anbar province, for example, we carefully managed our expenditure of Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) dollars for larger projects. We began to closely coordinate with our USAID partners and the Anbari government and tribes to ensure our CERP money, carefully spent, would provide the leading edge effects for longer term programs being planned and executed by USAID.

Subsequently, agricultural, electrical, and infrastructure development initiatives could be addressed early and quickly—“within the hearing of the guns”—and had immediate useful effects in stabilizing an area; often serving as the early phases of a program USAID would eventually resource and sustain. This relationship of establishing, transferring, expanding, and sustaining emerged from our shared military/USAID experiences in Anbar and elsewhere across the CENTCOM region. President Obama’s administration has instituted these approaches as the “coin of the realm” for the military and USAID relationship in our region, emphasizing comprehensive and partnered planning and execution.

FL: Top ranking individuals in our civil and military leadership, specifically Defense Secretary Robert Gates and ISAF Commander General David Petraeus have been strong USAID advocates. Why do you think ordinary Americans equate our military operations to broader national security aims, but are more reluctant to make the same parallels regarding our civilian efforts?

Allen: I honestly think it is simply a combination of word association and exposure. Through the media, particularly since 9/11, your average American has had far more day-to-day exposure to the military culture than to the development world. Americans are accustomed to and generally understand the broad mission areas of the military in ways they never had prior to 9/11. In contrast, they may not have had any exposure to, or understanding of, the art and science of development.

Those of us who’ve been honored to serve alongside development professionals understand that USAID delivers strategic effects which can strengthen U.S. relationships around the world and improve the qualities of governance, economic opportunity, and life for millions of our friends overseas. Interestingly, I would venture to guess that if you were to interview families from across the CENTCOM region, far more children have personally seen the USAID logo than have ever personally seen an American soldier. USAID has a significant impact and reach across our AOR [area of responsibility] and few understand that as well as the military.

In many respects, USAID’s efforts can do as much—over the long term—to prevent conflict as the deterrent effect of a carrier strike group or a marine expeditionary force.

There are adversaries in the CENTCOM region who understand and respect American hard power, but they genuinely fear American soft power frequently wielded in the form of USAID projects. While the hard power of the military can create trade, space, time, and a viable security environment, the soft power of USAID and the development community can deliver strategic effects and outcomes for decades, affecting generations. Ensuring our American development community is properly resourced is an investment in the future to create the strategic conditions we seek to sustain stability and economic development in CENTCOM’s region.

FL: Even in non-conflict areas, we operate under the basic idea that our investments and programs contribute to a more prosperous and stable world overall (and often at significantly lower cost than deploying our military). However, there are those who dispute this argument and view expenditures on others as a luxury that we can ill-afford at this time. Do you believe USAID’s activities are really a sound investment to save our “blood and treasure” in the future?

Allen: The development programs carried out by USAID directly support the president’s National Security Strategy and are a sound expenditure of our nation’s precious resources. As you note, some do feel that expending funds in support of development projects is a luxury. This argument complements the ever increasing concerns over the economic realities facing our government. The fiscal pie is only so big and the ability to carve out a larger slice—no matter who you are—will only continue to become more challenging.

As I enter my 40th year of service, I have enough experience to be comfortable stating that the important role played by USAID, as well as other development-focused organizations, will only continue to grow. Why? Because across all the world’s societies, there are common aspirations that tend to be remarkably close. In fact, they are nearly universal. Most people have an interest in three basic things: ensuring their basic needs of food, shelter, and medical care, are met; being able to worship in peace; and providing a better life, or at least better opportunities, for our children.

While all of these factors are underwritten by a secure environment, they can only advance when supported by development activities, ideally through their own governments. As the world’s population grows, and as societies increasingly find it difficult to make ends meet, it will fall to the development community and entities such as USAID to help both partner and host nations face the social challenges they will encounter. Failed societies create security crises, whereas stable societies do not. In the future, USAID will be ever more relevant to enabling stability and precluding security crises as it contributes to the long-term policy and security objectives of the United States, particularly within the CENTCOM area of responsibility. As a result, CENTCOM will continue, where possible, to be good partners with USAID. As we work together, we indeed do so with the intent of investing in sweat up front, so we do not have to pay in “blood and treasure” in the future in achieving our vital missions.

FL: What can USAID as an institution learn from the military? What can the military as an institution learn from USAID?

Allen: Simply, that while we each have our respective strengths, together we are always stronger, and we can achieve much more.