But the improved relationship hasn’t made Allen’s job any easier. His to-do list over the next several months is more complex than any previous commander in Kabul: He has to remove 23,000 troops — shuttering bases and reallocating supplies — during the peak summertime fighting season, while also accelerating the training of Afghan forces, deploying new teams of U.S. advisers to assist Afghan troops, and negotiating the terms of an enduring U.S. military presence with President Hamid Karzai’s government.
“John Allen faces an unprecedented challenge,” said retired lieutenant general David Barno, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. “He’s fighting a full-up insurgency at the same time he’s withdrawing forces and changing the mission. It’s an immense task.”
Allen’s predicament has no equivalent in modern American warfare.
In Iraq, U.S. troops departed in a far less violent environment. In Vietnam, Creighton Abrams, the general who presided over America’s withdrawal, had more troops at his disposal and more time to transfer responsibility to local forces.
By the early 1970s, according to historian Lewis Sorley, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu’s government was more effective, and the country’s army was more competent, than Karzai’s administration and the Afghan security forces are today. Allen “has a much more difficult job,” said Sorley, the author of “A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam.”
Allen, 58, is an avid reader of military histories and sees the Vietnam analogies — the insurgent safe havens across a national border, the plummeting public support back home — but he is studying a different withdrawal: that of the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989.
“We’re fighting on the same ground,” he noted.
Afghanistan’s Communist government remained in power through the pullout, falling only three years later, after the Soviet Union collapsed and its economic aid to Kabul ended. To Allen, that fact argues for sustained American assistance to Afghanistan, particularly to pay for its army and police, which will grow to a combined strength of 352,000 this year.
The annual price tag will be about $4 billion, a staggering cost, but far cheaper than the $100 billion annual tab to keep 100,000 American troops on Afghan soil. He and Obama plan to make the case for NATO to help foot the bill, and provide other long-term support to Afghanistan, during the alliance’s annual summit in Chicago next weekend.