Gen. John Allen’s name ought to be familiar to Americans — and not because his reputation was unfairly tarnished in the last year by an email scandal involving a Florida socialite.
Rather, Gen. Allen ought to be remembered as the Marine who until last weekend was commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Gen. Allen, who was cleared of improprieties last month, turned control over to another Marine general, Joseph Dunford. Gen. Dunford is expected to preside over the withdrawal of all, or nearly all, U.S. troops as the war continues to wind down.
Gen. Allen’s 19 months in charge were productive. Though it was among the most difficult periods for troops who found themselves dealing with an ever-changing insurgency and “green-on-blue” killings, Gen. Allen also contributed to a reasonable balance of combat and diplomacy in a land in which diplomatic progress is both elusive and short-lived.
Under Gen. Allen, leadership of missions shifted dramatically from U.S. to Afghan soldiers — from about 30 percent Afghan-led when he took over in 2011 to more than 80 percent now — and not just comparatively safe operations. Also, though NATO forces have been scaled back from about 100,000 to fewer than 70,000, the drawdown has not resulted in a surge of enemy attacks. Afghanistan’s Defense Minister, Bismillah Mohammadi, has said Gen. Allen deserves credit for a decline in civilian casualties, and added that it has helped bolster confidence in the Afghan government.
CNN reports that Gen. Dunford has promised “continuity” of Gen. Allen’s policies, not change. That continuity, unfortunately, might include less than ideal relations with Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, whose criticisms of U.S. actions have at times been valid and at other times have involved attempts to draw attention away from his own shortcomings. Continuity also will involve confronting the chronic insurgency involving the Taliban and other forces.
Gen. Dunford doesn’t bring much Afghanistan ground experience to his new post, but neither did Gen. David Petraeus. Gen. Dunford, who led troops for almost two years in Iraq, is regarded as both highly professional and thoughtful.
Gen. Dunford will need all his skills, for his challenge is a tall one. In late 2014 — less than two years from now — the troops that make up the international force will be long gone. Then, except for a modest U.S. troop contingent, the longest war in U.S. history will have come to an end and Afghanistan will effectively be on its own.