Former deputy commander of U.S. Central Command General John Allen replaces David Petraeus as head of forces in Afghanistan.


By

 June 14, 2011

Of all the members of President Obama’s new national security team, Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, tapped as the fourth commander in two years to run the war in Afghanistan, may have the toughest assignment.

In the coming days, Obama is expected to make a key strategic decision about how many troops the United States can afford to withdraw from Afghanistan without giving ground to the Taliban. To execute that high-stakes plan, he’ll turn to Allen, 57, a low-profile Marine with no combat experience in Afghanistan but with a reputation as a military turnaround specialist.

Unlike the household name he is slotted to replace, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, Allen has served in relative public obscurity for the past three years, as deputy commander of U.S. Central Command in Tampa.

Like Petraeus, however, Allen is known in defense circles as a scholarly leader whose strategic acumen helped reverse the tide of the war in Iraq. While serving as deputy commander in Anbar province in 2007 and 2008, Allen orchestrated the Sunni Awakening, the long-odds campaign to persuade hostile tribes to side with the U.S. military against al-Qaeda in Iraq and foreign fighters who were fueling the insurgency.

Obama will need him to pull off a similar feat, on a greater scale, with Afghanistan’s notoriously fractious tribes and warlords as international pressure builds to find a quick political solution to the decade-long war.

Even some of Allen’s most fervent supporters wonder whether he will find himself in a no-win position come September, when he is scheduled to take over from Petraeus as commander of 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops. The Senate is expected to hold confirmation hearings on his appointment and his promotion to four-star general by next month.

Confronting a resilient enemy on the battlefield may be the least of his problems. Allen will also have to contend with Afghanistan’s mercurial president, Hamid Karzai; an uncertain partner in Pakistan; and lawmakers in Congress who are itching to bring home U.S. troops.

“Will John be able to do in Afghanistan what he did in Iraq? It depends on the political landscape,” said James L. Williams, a retired Marine major general who has known Allen since they were young officers. “The question is, will he have the supporting cast in Washington, D.C., that he needs, as well as with our European allies?”

“I think that’s questionable,” Williams said.

For now, Allen has the support of his commander in chief, Obama, who announced Allen’s promotion April 28 as part of a broader turnover of his national security team, including the nominations of Leon Panetta as defense secretary, Petraeus as CIA director and Ryan C. Crocker as ambassador to Afghanistan.

Obama, however, has run through a string of generals in Afghanistan since taking office 21 / 2 years ago.

Gen. David D. McKiernan was fired in May 2009 after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said someone with “fresh eyes” was necessary. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal was forced to resign in June 2010 after he and his staff members were quoted as making disparaging remarks about civilian leaders. Petraeus maintained favor with the White House, but he was not intended as a long-term replacement and is leaving after 14 months.

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