“I can’t spend a lot of time worrying about the numbers at home,” he said. “I’ve got to focus on the mission.”
Allen is convinced that his campaign ultimately will be successful, even if it may not appear to be a clear-cut victory. But, he cautioned, “it’s going to be hard as hell.”
Allen assumed his days would be consumed with the Afghan handover and the drawdown, not to mention all of the other chores has predecessors faced — the meetings with congressional delegations and defense ministers from 50 coalition nations, the regular sessions with Karzai and his security ministers, and the vexing problem of insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan.
What he didn’t count on were what his staff calls “meteor strikes”: the release of a video showing Marines urinating on Taliban corpses; the burning of Korans at a giant U.S. base outside Kabul; and an Army sergeant’s allegedly murderous rampage near Kandahar. Each has thrown Allen and his staff for a loop, consuming hundreds of hours of time that could have been devoted to other tasks. And they have complicated his relationship with Karzai, increasing Afghan leverage in negotiations over restrictions on nighttime raids and a transfer of prisoners to Afghan control.
Those who have attended meetings between Allen and Karzai said the general has sought to strike a polite but firm tone in the face of the president’s anger, navigating a middle ground between McChrystal’s deference to the Afghan leader and Petraeus’s forcefulness. “Allen has exercised an approach of astonishing patience under provocation,” a senior Western diplomat in Kabul said.
After Karzai complained about “twin demons” in his country, referring to the Taliban and international forces, Allen wanted to fire back. But he forced himself to seethe quietly in the presidential palace. Then, when he returned to Washington, he made clear how he felt: “I reject the equivalence of our forces with the Taliban,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I’ll take it to a point,” he said over dinner in Kabul, “but I won’t take it to a fault.”
When Allen traveled to Ghazni, he had lunch with a dozen junior officers from the 82nd Airborne’s 1st Brigade. Instead of exhorting them to make the most of the last major U.S. operation of the war — telling them that the next several months would be America’s final chance to flush the Taliban from the province’s 7,000-foot plains — the general launched into a lecture about small-unit leadership.
“I need for our standards to be inviolate. We all know what’s right,” he said as the lieutenants and captains ate roast beef and noodles from Styrofoam containers. “This war can be lost without the Taliban winning. We have to win this morally as well as tactically and operationally.
“We want them to miss us because we were special to them. We don’t want them wiping their brows and saying, ‘Thank God they’re gone.’”