Meet the Last Man Who Thinks America Will Prevail in Afghanistan

Military analysis.
March 22 2012 7:21 PM

General Optimism

Gen. John Allen believes that America will prevail in Afghanistan. At least someone does.

President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai speaks during a graduation ceremony.
President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai speaks during a graduation ceremony at a military academy in Kabul on March 22, 2012

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images.

Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, testified before Congress this week for the first time since his confirmation, and I haven’t seen such unbridled optimism about a war—any war—since Donald Rumsfeld’s heyday.

“To be sure, the last couple months have been trying,” Allen acknowledged, referring to the Koran burnings, the massacre of 16 Afghan citizens, the killing of U.S. advisers by their Afghan underlings, and other disasters. But, he added, “I am confident that we will prevail in this endeavor.”

Allen’s predecessor, Gen. David Petraeus, would always hedge his progress reports, labeling it as “fragile and reversible.” The difference between the two generals is, in part, a matter of personal style; but it stems more from their differing circumstances.

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Petraeus took command during the early stages of a new strategy and a troop surge. His task, when he went to the Hill, was to urge forbearance: We’re headed in the right direction, but stick with me; this will take a while; we’re not over the hump just yet.

Allen came to the job as President Obama was pulling back from the strategy and starting to pull out the troops. His task is to persuade lawmakers that we’re leaving behind a stable situation—we’re not cutting and running—but that, at the same time, we shouldn’t move out more quickly than the president has planned.

Another, related difference is that the bar of success has been lowered considerably. Allen stated several times during two mornings of appearances before the armed services committees—Tuesday on the House side, Thursday on the Senate—that the measure of success, the “linchpin” of our strategy, is building and training an Afghan security force able to carry on the fight against the Taliban after NATO’s combat troops are gone.

This is a substantial departure from the counterinsurgency strategy pursued during Petraeus’ tenure (and Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s before that), which focused not just on training the Afghan army and police but also on protecting the population, providing the people with basic services, and improving the Afghan government by beefing up its resources and rooting out its corruption.

All those additional goals are still in place, but they’re now mainly the Afghans’ responsibility. They’re no longer on our checklist of priorities.

If the key measure of success is now the state of the Afghan security forces, then Allen is right: We have made progress; one could even say, as he did in the hearings, that the “campaign is on track.”

In January 2011, Afghan forces consisted of 151 battalion-sized units, 101 of which were competent as long as we gave them advice and assistance. One year later, the forces consist of 168 units, 138 of which are capable with outside advice and assistance, 11 of which can do well by themselves.

Allen also testified that Afghan forces are “in the lead,” with U.S. or NATO troops providing only support, in more than 40 percent of conventional military operations; that they’ve set up nine special-forces commands; and that the Afghan Local Police—armed neighborhood watch groups, formally authorized by the interior ministry—have expanded to 12,000 men in 99 sites. (This falls short of the goal of 30,000, but the program is growing.)

Still, in the broader scheme of things, these accomplishments, though impressive, are secondary at best.

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