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Guest post: The U.S. Mission in Afghanistan in General John R. Allen’s words

April 4, 2012
By Sorina Crisan*
On March 26, 2012, General John R. Allen, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, answered several questions pertinent to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. The conversation was held at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C., and was moderated by Michael O’Hanlon, Director of Research and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The discussion lasted roughly one hour and was expected to end with Gen. Allen answering several questions from the audience. Though the event concluded with a Q&A session between the General and the present audience, the moderator took the liberty to choose the “winning” questions to be addressed from a stack of cards containing the attendees’ written comments. As a result, only those topics that were in synch with the moderator’s agenda were addressed. The only time Mr. O’Hanlon seemed to briefly challenge his guest was when he raised the point that on the ground, journalists and NGOs describe the current security situation in Afghanistan as being more dangerous than five years ago. Gen. Allen responded briefly that when looking at security levels, ISAF measures “a whole variety of indices and indicators, and the initiation of enemy attacks is one of the biggest indicators […]. In Kabul, that number on a week-to-week basis […] is 1 percent or less of the 100 percent that would constitute all of the enemy-initiated attacks across the country. In RC North, that number is 5 percent or less typically, and RC West is 5 percent, or less.” The above statement does not address the impact that a relatively “low” percentage of enemy attacks has on the Afghan population and the country at large.

Had the moderator addressed other “hot topics” related to the U.S. intervention, the discussion might have succeeded in shedding more light on the current state of affairs. Alas, that did not happen and as a result, Brookings Institution will most likely have the privilege to host Gen. Allen, or similar individuals, in the future. When it comes to interviewing high profile military officials, is it worth asking the crucial questions (which almost always translate into the most controversial ones that no one feels comfortable addressing) and risk never having the same guest on your show again? Do interviewers perceive their careers as successful as long as they have a long line of higher-ups to interview? How many times does asking the “right” questions come second to one’s work environment and, unwritten but well-known, internal politics of the institution one works for?

Leaving aside what could have been asked and possibly answered on March 26, let us now focus on what was addressed. It is always necessary to know both sides of a story. Following is the official U.S. military assessment of the current intervention in Afghanistan, in Gen. Allen’s own words, as it relates to: the current campaign, ANSF, possible growing insurgency, on the ground violence, strategic partnership agreement with the U.S., and ethnic cooperation.

Allen at Brookings:

Michael O’Hanlon: Explain, in broad terms, where you think the campaign is right now.
Gen. John Allen: When I took command on the 18th of July, [2011], within minutes I had my first meeting with my commanders, and then met with the senior leaders throughout the theater very quickly thereafter, and I gave them four priorities.

The first priority was to continue the continuity of the campaign; continue to pressure the enemy as much as we possibly could with the forces available. And the intent was to facilitate through a continuity of the campaign other outcomes, which might accrue, a willingness to be engaged in a reconciliation, for example, an acceleration of reintegration, etc. […]

The second was to do all we could to accelerate the movement of the ANSF into the lead, into the fore, the idea being that, of course, in a counterinsurgency, especially where foreign forces are involved, you really are attempting to do two things. One is to shape the campaign, shape the insurgency within that campaign, but the other very important thing that you’re attempting to do is to shape the defeat mechanism of the insurgency. And that’s a bit of a stark term, but the defeat mechanism in many respects, and in most counterinsurgencies, is the indigenous force itself. […]

The third priority was to set the conditions and ultimately support the concept of transition as it had been enunciated in the Lisbon Summit in November of ’10.

The fourth priority was just be prepared, be agile, be prepared for changing situations as they may evolve or present themselves, both at the level of being a commander, but also with the staffs for the purposes of planning to account for the unexpected or a wild card scenario. […]

Where do we find ourselves now? 2012 is a year that will have a variety of unique operational conditions to it. The first is, of course, we will be in the second phase of the recovery of the surge forces. The drawdown associated with that, those forces will start moving out of the theater probably within several weeks, the lead echelons of that. I’ll make my final decision with respect to those 23,000 troops and ultimately submit that decision through the chain of command, ultimately to the President. Those troops need to be out of the theater by the 30th of September.

Other important dimensions to 2012 will be obviously the re-posturing of the combat power within the theater to account for the departure of 23,000 troops. We will also be inserting the lead echelons and most of the advisory force, which we hope will continue the process of developing the ANSF, and, in fact, may be able to accelerate the ANSF into the lead.

This is a unique fighting season this year in that […] Ramadan may, although we’re not sure yet, it may create some uniqueness to this particular fighting season in that it could have the appearance of being two fighting seasons instead of one.

And in terms of the unfolding of the fighting season, we had some pretty good success last year in the south, in particular in Kandahar and in the Central Helmand River Valley, and we’ll be seeking to leverage that success this year by consolidating our hold in the south, while we’ll continue to employ our combat power in the east in a counterinsurgent mode, obviously to take care of the insurgency as it continued to boil in the east. In the north and in the west, there has been I think some significant success in the north in the German-led element of the coalition, and in the west with the Italian-led elements of the coalition.

And our desire there will be to continue to secure key lines of communication, but also to continue to secure the population centers, as well, to deny the enemy access back into the population across the country, but in general, in the north and in the south, or north and in the west, and then in the south around Kandahar and the Central Helmand River Valley, while in the east, we’ll seek to push out of the Kabul security zone, some of what we’ll call the orbital districts and orbital provinces.
So it’s going to be a busy summer, and we anticipate that the campaign will balance the drawdown of the surged forces with the consolidation of our holdings in the south, continued combat operations in the east as we insert the advisors into the Afghan security forces, with the idea of pushing them into the lead.

Michael O’Hanlon: Explain a little more, sector by sector, in the country the trends that you see going on.  […] There are still journalists and members of nongovernmental organizations and other travelers to Afghanistan who are struck by the fact that some parts of the country are more dangerous than they were five, six years ago. […]
Gen. John Allen: We measure a whole variety of indices and indicators, and the initiation of enemy attacks is one of the biggest indicators for us. In Kabul, that number on a week-to-week basis — and we watch it very closely — is 1 percent or less of the 100 percent that would constitute all of the enemy-initiated attacks across the country. In RC North, that number is 5 percent or less typically, and RC West is 5 percent, or less.

And, you’re right, I think that the Taliban has sought to seek advantage in the Pashtun enclaves in the north and in the west. But, interestingly, in the north and in the west we’ve achieved our greatest successes in reintegration. On roughly January 1st of 2011, there were about 600 or so reintegrees across the country. Yesterday I saw the number, it appears to be about 3,880 since 1 January 2011, and many of those have come out of the north. There are another 400 or so in the pipeline for acceptance. And so we’ve seen both in the numbers that we track a reduction in enemy-initiated attacks in Kabul, the province of Kabul, RC North, and in RC West. We’ve also seen a reduction in numbers in the Central Helmand River Valley. In some of those areas, pretty dramatic numbers, as much as 80 percent reduction in enemy-initiated attacks. It doesn’t mean there isn’t violence. It doesn’t mean there isn’t criminality. But in the numbers that we track, that number has come down.

It has gone up, however, in RC East, and that’s, I think, to be expected. That’s a different kind of insurgency in some respects, and it is one that’s going to require some significant combat power to come.

Michael O’Hanlon: How do you even conceptualize a robust counterinsurgency campaign for the east that you’re going to be conducting this year and next year?
Gen. John Allen: It’s multifaceted, obviously, as any counterinsurgency would be, and it’s a variety of a number of things. We are able now to have the kind of conversation with General Karimi within the context of the ANSF, and the ANA in particular, to talk about the reinforcement and ultimately to take advantage of improved capabilities of the 201st and 203rd Corps. They have matured, and the intention is ultimately — without getting into too much specificity on operational detail – – the intention will be to beef up their capabilities so that there is the first bit of force increase that we’ll need. They will be paying some particular attention to Nuristan and Kunar east of Kabul along the Route 7 economic corridor that we hope will ultimately begin to take hold. And then south of Kabul we’ll ask for some additional assistance in the Wardak, Logar, and Ghazni area. In fact, we’ll be bringing in some additional U.S. combat power in the time remaining for the troops available that I have this coming summer to do some specific work in Ghazni. So, it’s not just a function of the ISAF troop strength in a general term. It is also going to be, for the first time, our ability really to partner with the ANSF at a campaign level. […]

So, it’s a combination of what will remain in RC East of the ISAF forces, what will be brought in to bear in augmentation in terms of a combined campaign, what additional forces will be brought in from the ANSF, continued operations with the kandaks, additional placement of village stability operations platforms and ALP units, as well as focused task force operations. And the combination of all of that we anticipate will give us a good launching pad for the operations in RC East this coming summer and in the fall and into next year.

Michael O’Hanlon: Do you worry that the uptick in violence is actually a sign of growing insurgency or is it more a sign of your intensification of operations and you’re hopeful that it’s going to trend down pretty soon?
Gen. John Allen: It’s a function of a number of things. […] For the Taliban and for the Haqqanis in particular, the sense is that now is their opportunity. It would appear that we are drawing down our strength, but the ANSF may not necessarily be ready. And so this could be their sense of the moment when they may be able to have significant or dramatic effect in the battle space. […]

Our sense is that while it will be their intent, probably through the use of high-profile attacks, increased tempo for suicide attacks, assassination, to continue to inflict as much damage as they can within inside RC East and to try to get inside Kabul again. Anticipating that, conducting operations throughout the winter, positioning and posturing our forces in anticipation of that, we’re going to spend a good bit of time concentrating on that network this coming spring and summer.

Michael O’Hanlon: Afghan security forces are involved in about 90 percent of all the operations, they’re leading 40 percent of them, they’ve got 138 out of 167 kandaks that are at least in the top 3 tiers of readiness. Those are all encouraging, but of course they’re also statistics of the type that are hard to integrate into a net assessment. What makes you feel overall pretty good about them?
Gen. John Allen: […] Where we have found that the kandak and brigade commanders are competent, where they are not corrupt, what we find is that from that echelon of command down, we can get some pretty good battlefield performance out of them. And that should be a surprise to no one. Where we find that either there is an absence of competence or there could even, in fact, be corruption, that has a tendency to chill all of the echelons below it, so whether it’s at the kandak or down at the foot soldier level, and that varies from place to place. […]

There is the sense that the Afghan is not a reluctant soldier, and he is not a reluctant soldier. In fact, the Afghans are some of the greatest individual fighters going, frankly, from their history and from their recent experience. But what makes the difference between one army to the next is not necessarily the ferocity of the individual fighter, and that, of course, does play out in important places and important ways. It’s how well the planning can ultimately go forward. And a commander who is able to lead a coherent planning program/ planning effort to bring his staff together to go through the process of anticipating, planning, and executing an operation, that is the commander who is the commander of the future. […]

Michael O’Hanlon: The next question is about the strategic partnership agreement […] with the Afghan government about a long-term relationship post 2014. Is there a chance still that this could be concluded before the NATO Summit in May? Does it even matter? Shouldn’t we just be patient?
Gen. John Allen: The answer is yes. I don’t think there’s any absence of desire or commitment by either President Obama or President Karzai to have a strategic partnership. In fact, I know that they have both recently reaffirmed their respective desires that ultimately the United States and Afghanistan have a strategic partnership.

President Karzai convened at the loya jirga last year, specifically with the intent that the 2,000 or so Afghans who were invited to participate in this paramount expression of Afghan will […] and ultimately returned a collective decision or a collective recommendation to President Karzai that Afghanistan’s interests in the future were best served by a strong relationship with the international community in general, but a strategic partnership with the United States in particular.

I think that was very positive. In the course of the development of the strategic partnership itself, we have sought to address a couple of long-term issues that Afghanistan has been concerned about, and it’s a function of sovereignty for them and we certainly understand that.

The first is the issue of the Afghans maintaining law of armed conflict attention, administrative attention, of insurgents who were picked up in the battlefield.
We successfully — Administer Wardak and I — signed the Memorandum of Understanding for that about three weeks ago. […] It was a real affirmation of Afghan sovereignty. And I think for Afghanistan it was an important moment for them, in this insurgency, when you think about the fact that we will be transferring about 3,000 detainees that the U.S. has been holding in law, in administrative detention under the law of armed conflict to the Afghans. That’s a big accomplishment for them.

The other issue that we’re dealing with right now is an agreement on night operations and we’re at a pretty critical moment in those discussions. Meanwhile, the strategic partnership itself goes forward and I believe that should we be successful in completing the night operations Memorandum of Understanding within the next couple of weeks or so, there is time, ultimately, for a strategic partnership to be concluded by the United States and Afghanistan. […]

It would be good to have it done by Chicago, where the heads of state of the 50 ISAF nations will gather together. Many of those nations have concluded their own bilateral agreements with the Afghans to this point and NATO intends to have a strategic partnership with Afghanistan. So it would be, I think, a really important signal, both to the international community, to all of ISAF, and certainly to Afghanistan, if that other key strategic partnership is concluded by then as well.

Michael O’Hanlon: To what extent are you worried that Tajik Pashtun, or intra-Pashtun tensions, or anything else could, especially as the presidential race approaches in Afghanistan and our departure looms […], that these could come to the surface? To what extent do you think that you see harmony or greater cooperation, at least the common sense of purpose that gives you hope for the future?

Gen. John Allen: […] We like to say that the ANSF, when it ultimately is built and fielded, when it is achieving on the battlefield what we hope it will, will become the symbol of national unity. Not just out to 2014, but beyond. And it’ll become a symbol of national unity because we don’t have Tajik units. We don’t have Pashtun units. We have units where we have sought to create ethnic balance. Some are out of balance and, in fact, the entire force is slightly out of balance. But, we watch the numbers and we seek to focus recruiting efforts in ways that can address, or redress, the potential imbalances.

But if we really believe, as the numbers would seem to imply, that the Afghan people have confidence in their ANSF, growing with the police, high with the army, and if that army is broadly representative of the many different ethnicities of Afghanistan, and it becomes, in essence, the shield of the state for the purposes of stability, then I think we will have created — we, the Afghans themselves — will have created that really vital role for the military and the police, which is not just to fight, but to be the symbol of what Afghanistan can be in the future, which is a nation of many different kinds of people united in a common cause, and in this case the security of the state to permit the development of governance, to address the issues of corruption, to provide opportunity for economic development. And if we’re successful in this, if the Afghans are successful in continuing the forces, to have the face of all of Afghanistan and not the face of one particular ethnicity, then I think we’ll have been successful.


*Sorina Ioana Crisan is currently a research intern with Lund University Center for Middle Eastern Studies.  She has a dual MA from Boston University in International Relations (Security Studies with focus on current U.S./German intervention in Afghanistan) and International Communications.  She has completed internships with Jane’s Defence Weekly and the Center for a New American Security, Washington, D.C. and has written articles for JDW and Tom Rick’s Best Defense Blog.   Contact her at:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2012 7:07 am

    Is Afghanistan really a country? Balancing Pashtun, Hazara (not mentioned, I believe) and Tajik proportions, not to mention (which wasn’t, I believe) Sunni and Shia flavors of Islam in the police force and army is, I assert, impossible. Here is a snapshot from Wikipedia:

    The population of Afghanistan is around 29.8 million as of the year 2011, which includes the Afghan refugees temporary staying in Pakistan and Iran. The nation is composed of a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual society…,The majority of Afghanistan’s population consist of the Iranic peoples, notably the Pashtuns and Tajiks.

    The Pashtun is the largest group followed by Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, Baloch and others. Pashto and Dari (Persian) are both the official languages of the country, although Persian is spoken by about half of the population and serves as a lingua franca for the majority. Pashto is spoken widely in the south, east and south west of the country as well as in neighboring northernwestern Pakistan. Uzbek language and Turkmen language are spoken in parts of the north. Smaller groups throughout the country also speak more than 30 other languages and numerous dialects.

    An estimated 80-89% of the population practice Sunni Islam and belong to the Hanafi Islamic law school while 10-19% are Shi’a… The remaining 1% or less practice other religions such as Sikhism and Hinduism… Excluding urban populations in the principal cities, most Afghans are organized into tribal and other kinship-based groups, which follow their own traditional customs: for instance Pashtunwali.

    • April 4, 2012 7:59 am

      Ron, a mix of ethnic groups and language, admittedly – and clearly beset with many and diverse problems – but I would still call it a nation in every sense. Certainly, if you ask the Afghans themselves – of any of the ethnic persuasions – they seem to view themselves as part of an Afghan nation. And they are very good at uniting to resist invaders. There is no “separatism”, ie groups calling for independence, of any note (not even Pushtuns calling for Pushtunistan). Whether a renewed (and nastier) civil war is capable of tearing the country into north and south in years to come remains to be seen…

      • April 4, 2012 8:04 am

        Glad to hear of your perception on this. It squares with what I heard privately from the Afghan gentleman we both heard at the conference in Stockholm some months ago.

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