“In some ways, it feels like I’m leaving family behind to an uncertain future,” he said, looking out at the rugged expanse of southern Afghanistan last week.
Since 2001, there have been 11 commanders of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, five of whom, like Allen, also commanded NATO forces. But no other general was forced to focus in equal measure on both fighting a war and withdrawing from it.
That meant putting Afghan soldiers in charge of combat operations even as many observers said they were unprepared. It meant building trust with an Afghan president known for intransigence, and fighting the Taliban while support waned in the United States. Those were the predictable challenges.
Then there were the unexpected tests: the insider attacks, the burning of Korans on a U.S. military base, the Pentagon investigation into a trove of Allen’s e-mails for possible sexual impropriety — which cleared Allen of wrongdoing last week.
As his command was buffeted, Allen impressed subordinate commanders with an ability to straddle Washington’s demands for a military endgame with Afghan demands for long-term reassurance. But he says he recognized that the U.S. drawdown would not coincide with clear-cut victory — in many cases, security gains have only brought more questions.
With 11 days left in his tour, Allen says he’s proud of the growth of the Afghan security forces and the success of NATO’s troop surge in places such as southern Helmand, where four years ago the Taliban operated freely.
But if security is not accompanied by effective governance, the Taliban could return, he says, or criminal networks could corrode gains.
“Now what they face is an absence of governance and a desire for law enforcement and legal stability,” Allen said of civilians in parts of the country that have seen strategic gains.
He has been pressing Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, to deliver governance in places where military gains are visible. But in many cases, patronage networks have prevailed or corrupt leaders have remained in power as public confidence diminished.
“General Allen works for his own country. We work for the national interests of our country,” Abdul Karim Khurram, Karzai’s chief of staff, said of Allen and Karzai’s sometimes divergent views.
Meanwhile, there has been pressure from Allen’s own government. The next phase of the drawdown — and questions about Washington’s appetite for a military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 — have hovered over his command.