The Last Field Commander
Can General John Allen save Afghanistan? Wrong question

General John R. Allen and a villager in Afghanistan (Bing West)


On average, each conventional battalion accounted for one Taliban fatality each week. Within that average, though, lies considerable variation: Some battalions engaged in frequent firefights, while others engaged in none. Overall, combat was light. Most battalions conducted routine police patrols that could be accomplished with equal effectiveness by Afghan soldiers — if led by Afghan officers of average competence.

Anecdotes from the front lines, however, were disturbing. On NPR, for instance, two company commanders fresh from the battlefield said that the same small minority of Afghan soldiers always patrolled alongside American soldiers, while the great majority of the Afghan soldiers remained inside the base. These commanders were convinced that Afghan battalions would cut deals with insurgents once the U.S. units withdrew.

If American battalions do pull out without injecting any compensating U.S. force, the Afghan forces will most likely lose heart and fall apart. The insertion of advisers to fill this role is the heart of Allen’s transition strategy.

“Having advisers outside the wire — in the fight — is not optional,” he says. “It is required.”

The performance of the Afghan army on its own remains unpredictable, because it hasn’t yet been tested. Afghanistan is not large-scale combat; it’s a war of intimidation — brief fights and bombings intended to instill fear and cause the Afghan troops to pull back. Preventing that by building an adviser corps, all while withdrawing the conventional battalions, will be the most significant organizational change in the ten-year war.

Last winter and again this spring, I embedded with a Marine platoon in Helmand Province. The grunts slept in rooms hacked out of a mud-walled farmhouse surrounded by corn and poppy fields. Every day we went out on patrol. Every day someone shot to kill a Marine, and the Marines shot back to kill him. Afghan soldiers took part in every patrol.

I asked the platoon to rate the fighting skills of the Afghan soldiers against the Taliban. Twenty-one Marines said the Afghan soldiers and the Taliban were about equal, seven said the Afghan soldiers were better, and 17 said the Taliban were better. In essence, the platoon believed Afghan soldiers could hold their own, assuming a modicum of leadership.

Whether the grunts of one nation can transfer their fighting spirit to the army of another, and whether advisers can make a critical difference, is an open question. After the South Vietnamese army lost several battles in 1972, General Abrams, according to the historian Lewis Sorley, told his staff, “General Vien was asking me about some equipment. . . . I said, ‘Equipment is not what you need. You need men that will fight. And you need officers that will fight, and will lead the men.’”

The Afghan army has two years to pull its act together and save the nation. Without a strong army, Afghanistan will degenerate into civil war. With a strong army, Afghanistan can deny safe havens to terrorists and preserve the nation’s fragile unity.

The complexity of Allen’s task — standing up a competent Afghan security force as the coalition forces leave — is staggering. At a time when the murders of American soldiers by Afghan soldiers have eroded mutual trust as well as U.S. public support, the coalition strategy requires the continued deployment of small advisory teams vulnerable to such tactics. The massacre of Afghan civilians by an American soldier will further inflame tensions. And although Allen and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have skillfully managed America’s relationship with President Karzai, the Afghan government has yet to sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement that will extend a substantial U.S. military presence and financial commitment beyond 2014.

“This is the eleventh hour,” Allen says, “and I have a solemn obligation to get this job done with whatever resources I have, or inform the commander-in-chief of recommended adjustments.”

Sorley begins his biography of Abrams with the quote, “He deserves a better war.” Like Abrams, Allen conveys positive leadership and thoughtful determination. Also like Abrams, he understands that in the end, no American general controls the final outcome. America and NATO cannot be expected to fight with more resolve for the freedom of Afghans than do the Afghans themselves.

– Mr. West is a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine who travels frequently to Afghanistan to report from the front lines.

April 16, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, No. 7

Books, Arts & Manners
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .