“How are you going to create that as an end state?” Allen asked, making no effort to mask his deep skepticism.
Faced with an order from President Obama to withdraw 23,000 troops by the end of the summer, and the prospect of further reductions next year, Allen is hastily transforming the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. Instead of trying to continue large U.S. counterinsurgency operations for as long as he can, he is accelerating a handover of responsibility to Afghan security forces. He plans to order American and NATO troops to push Afghans into the lead across much of the country this summer, even in insurgent-ridden places that had not been candidates for an early transfer.
“My instruction to my commanders is to get the [Afghans] into the fight,” Allen said in an interview. “The sooner I can get them there, while I still have the time and the combat power, the more I can catch them if they fall.”
Here in Ghazni province, where American forces will mount the last major offensive of the decade-long war over the next few months, he is narrowing long-held U.S. goals. Instead of trying to reform the Afghan government, protect the civilian population and conduct security operations until Afghan forces are ready to take over — all of which Americans sought to do as recently as last year — a newly arrived brigade from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division plans to spend the summer attacking Taliban redoubts before departing in mid-September, regardless of whether Afghan soldiers are capable of holding their own.
Six other American generals have taken turns commanding the war since 2002, and each sought to strike a decisive blow against the Taliban. Stanley McChrystal used a 30,000-troop surge to conduct intensive counterinsurgency operations across the south. David Petraeus, who succeeded him, increased the frequency of nighttime operations against Taliban commanders. But it is the silver-haired Allen, widely regarded in the military as one of the sharpest strategic thinkers in a four-star uniform, who may have the greatest impact on Afghanistan’s future — and America’s legacy in the strife-torn nation.
Unlike his predecessors, who had the luxury of troops and money, he has been forced to triage. He has narrowed targets for the development of local government, the pursuit of graft and the development of the country’s economy. His pragmatic focus is on the one prerequisite for America to head to the exits, as defined by the White House: Afghan security forces that are strong enough to keep the Taliban, which continues to enjoy sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, from toppling the Kabul government. Although much of the Afghan army remains raggedy, with weak leadership and persistent supply shortages, he is betting that shifting responsibility sooner will increase the odds that Afghans will be able to stand their ground once the U.S. presence shrinks.