Helmand Province, Afghanistan — In late August 2011, General John R. Allen visited a base built atop the ruins of a 19th-century British fort here. Allen, an avid historian, grasped the irony of the setting. Over the previous 150 years, two British armies and one Russian army had left Afghanistan in frustration. Now Allen was in command of the fourth army to leave. He is the last NATO field commander, charged with extracting 140,000 international troops from combat while fighting a war with an uncertain outcome against an enemy with a certain sanctuary in next-door Pakistan.
By this year’s end, Allen must reduce his U.S. force by a third without conceding populated areas. He must place Afghan battalions with uneven leadership into the breach. And he must shore up a defense-in-depth to ward off attacks launched from inside Pakistan. The decisions of John Allen, age 58, a courteous gentleman from Virginia who is virtually unknown to the American public, will greatly affect whether Afghanistan holds together or descends into chaos.
On our flight to Helmand, he explains to me what he calls the “force vectors” determining success or failure. One vector is time. President Obama has pledged to withdraw U.S. troops from combat by 2014. By this year’s end, U.S. troop strength will drop from roughly 100,000 to 70,000.
A second vector is Afghanistan’s political path. Afghan officials are bargaining tenaciously over the terms of the Strategic Partnership Agreement that will govern American military activities after 2014. The SPA will be critical in persuading NATO and other countries to pledge continued support.
The Pakistani sanctuary is the third vector. Pakistan supports terrorists in a proxy war in order to control the eventual political outcome in Afghanistan. Conceding a sanctuary to insurgents has historically imperiled any beleaguered government.
The fourth vector is instilling confidence in the Afghan army. Unless Afghan security forces can stand up to the Taliban, chaos and civil war are inevitable.
“My focus,” Allen says, “is transitioning Afghan forces into the lead on the battlefield.”
The scale of his task can be illustrated with one statistic: In August, just 72 of 211 Afghan battalions were rated as effective without the assistance of coalition forces. With the number of coalition troops shrinking, Allen is racing against the clock.
Allen is the eleventh general to command the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). His visit to the small British base in Helmand Province is part of his twice-weekly “battlefield circulation.” When the British officers say they are recruiting villagers as auxiliary police, Allen nods in approval.
“Good,” he says. “The more tribes that commit, the better.”