“The art of warfare fascinated me,” he says. “And the Marine grunt was always in the thick of it.”
His career highlights include command of a rifle platoon, a weapons platoon, one rifle company, and then another, followed by command of a battalion and appointment as commandant of midshipmen at the Naval Academy and then commanding general of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Iraq. Asked which of his 21 command and staff assignments in 35 years he remembers most fondly, he is quick to answer: “Lima Company, 4th Marines. My wife Kathy and I knew every one of our Marines, their wives and kids. Our two girls were young, and everyone worked together and took care of each other. Once you’re promoted above captain, you lose that close connection.”
Beginning in 2008, he worked as General David Petraeus’s deputy at Central Command. The two shared an intellectual, even-keeled approach. Shunning confrontations and displays of anger, both men quietly manipulated the bureaucracies to reassign those who performed poorly. When Petraeus took command in Afghanistan in 2010, Allen remained as the deputy in Tampa. After Petraeus returned to Washington in mid-2011 as director of the CIA, Allen took over in Afghanistan.
At the same time, President Obama downgraded the mission of long-term nation building. Instead, he said, “it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” The new, more modest goal in Afghanistan was to prevent the reemergence of a safe haven for Islamist terrorists. Allen was charged with transitioning Afghan forces into the lead, and the American military role would change from combat to support by 2014.
“Afghans must see their army as the symbol of national unity, holding the country together,” he says.
Allen works 100-hour weeks, with a third of the time spent on the battlefields and another third in discussions with his staff in his small operations center. He is focused on the battlefield and on the performance of the Afghan army and police. An executive manages what he measures, and over the course of his career, Allen has acquired a reputation for poring over reports at ungodly hours.
At his bedside he keeps biographies of military commanders, including an account of how British field marshal William Slim turned defeat into victory over Japanese forces in Burma and India in World War II. He hoards eight hours a week for personal study time.
Allen’s initial directive to his forces set forth what he wanted done, but not how to do it. Accelerate the fielding of the Afghan forces, he wrote, and review your procedures to adapt as a “learning organization.” Retired colonel Mike Killion, who served with Allen on several tours, comments on his leadership style: “John Allen is the master of what I call progressive elaboration. He establishes a framework and then solicits good ideas. When a better idea comes along, he’ll grab it and refine his framework. He doesn’t get stuck due to pride of ownership.”
In Afghanistan, Allen needed all the bright ideas he could grab. Although the northern and western parts of the country were relatively stable, insurgents had besieged the eastern and southern areas, comprising 260,000 square kilometers and 20 million people. At first, the Afghans could do little to defend themselves. For comparison, consider that Iraq — a country with the same population but one-third smaller in size — had 800,000 men under arms. Afghanistan had fewer than 400,000, and most recruits had to be taught to read as well as to shoot. The cost for that force, including pay, equipment, and maintenance, was estimated at $6 billion to $10 billion per year.
Quantity is one thing; fighting quality is quite another. To accelerate the development of the Afghan army, the coalition had “partnered” Afghan and American forces in the field. The intent was to train by example. A similar technique had worked in Iraq — with two key differences: First, the Iraqi army was easier to reconstitute, since Iraq had an educated middle class. Second, the Sunni tribes in Iraq turned against al-Qaeda.
Allen played a key role in that shift. While serving in 2007 in Anbar Province, then–Brigadier General Allen shuttled to Jordan to negotiate with pro-insurgent sheiks. He provided clandestine airlift, medical treatment, and bodyguards to entice them to join the Sunni tribal movement known as the Anbar Awakening.