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.”
Allen next meets with the district police chief, who asks for more cops. Allen points out that regular policemen cost $30,000 a year, compared with $8,000 for a village auxiliary.
“The village men,” he says, “are your additional police.”
After the meeting with the district elders, Allen bounds off to talk with the troops of the British 45th Commando. After shucking helmet, armor, and aides, he wanders around the parapets chatting with lean, sunburned youths in T-shirts. He congratulates them on their progress and listens to their war stories. For a few minutes, he isn’t the four-star who confers with ambassadors; he is back among troops.
“I learn something every time I visit a line unit,” he says. “But truth be told, visiting the troops in the field recharges my batteries.”
Reserved among diplomats and distant with journalists, Allen is most comfortable among soldiers. He has twice won Marine Corps awards for leadership and has been named Instructor of the Year at the Naval Academy.
His choice of the military as a career began with a teacher. As a sophomore at the prestigious Flint Hill School in northern Virginia, he fell under the tutelage of a retired British Marine with a degree from Oxford who had fought in Malaya during World War II and spent much of the war in a Japanese POW camp on the River Kwai. Allen graduated with a keen appreciation of literature and an abiding respect for proper form and discipline. His father had won a battlefield commission on board the destroyer U.S.S. Woolsey by climbing the ship’s mast to adjust naval gunfire in a duel with a German tank racing along the sands of the Anzio beachhead in 1944. Instead of Princeton, John Allen chose to attend the Naval Academy. By his junior year, he had decided to be a Marine infantryman rather than a Navy officer.