As Gen. John Allen steps down as commander of NATO forces in Kabul, several accomplishments merit mention. A man who was unfairly tainted by the Jill Kelley email scandal deserves praise for a remarkable 19-month tenure that brought stability and steady progress to the mission in Afghanistan. Even more important, a fair reckoning of Allen’s tenure should give hope to those depressed about the war effort, as well as give pause to those who would reduce our current forces too quickly out of frustration or fatalism. Consider:
Afghan security forces are reaching their intended size. The path to achieving the targets was established under previous commanders, Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, as well as the three-star heads of the NATO training command in Kabul, William Caldwell and Daniel Bolger, but Allen has seen it through. That said, Afghan forces still lack some crucial enablers in air power and air transport, artillery and logistics that may require the United States to have a larger “bridging” force in 2015 and 2016 than some would now advocate. And it will be important not to prematurely cut that 350,000-strong Afghan force by 100,000 or more troops, as some in Washington have favored.
Afghan forces lead most operations. When Allen arrived in summer 2011, those forces led perhaps a third of all missions — generally the easier ones, in the safer places. Today, they lead 85 percent of all operations and have primary responsibility for security in about three-fourths of the country. Their casualty figures prove their willingness to sacrifice, with about 2,000 losing their lives annually. Those casualty numbers also indicate, unfortunately, that the enemy remains resilient. But the enemy is not winning.
In southern Afghanistan, NATO forces were downsized substantially on Allen’s watch, and total U.S. forces in Afghanistan declined from 100,000 to 68,000 over the past 15 months. Security conditions have not deteriorated. Of course, the larger test comes under Allen’s successor, Gen. Joseph Dunford, a fellow Marine who must oversee a much larger drawdown by the time the international mission is replaced in late 2014 by a much more modest effort. The reduction in enemy attacks and civilian casualty rates — some 20 percent to 40 percent in Kandahar and Helmand provinces — achieved since around 2010 is holding even as the number of U.S. troops has declined by tens of thousands.
Insider attacks, while still a huge worry, appear to be lessening. This plague preoccupied Allen during much of his tenure, with dozens of U.S. and NATO forces (and comparable numbers of loyal Afghan forces) lost to Taliban recruits, mentally unstable individuals or simple criminals. Through improved vetting procedures, worked out with Afghan authorities, the rates of “green-on-blue” killings have fallen by perhaps half in recent months.
Although presidential elections in April 2014 are largely an accomplishment of Afghans themselves, encouraged by the international diplomatic corps, Allen helped Afghanistan stay on track to the elections. His successor will, again, have the larger chore, but Allen deserves credit for keeping things on course when some were calling for President Hamid Karzai to seek a third term or expected him to anoint one of his brothers for the job. A legitimate, democratic leadership change is crucial for Afghanistan’s future.
Because of all this, and Afghanistan’s generally stable, if not peaceful, security environment, fears of an incipient civil war have not greatly intensified in the past two years. That could, of course, still change. But the military progress has helped open up space for political progress. Afghans who began conversations with worries of civil conflict a year or two ago often raise other issues now; that counts as a step forward in the land of the Hindu Kush. In recent days, Afghan and Pakistani leaders have even talked about cooperating in peace talks with the Taliban — also a promising sign, as the two governments have often been at extreme odds over the past few years.
While Afghanistan is still plagued by corruption, NATO has gotten much better, under Allen’s leadership, at reducing its contribution to the problem. NATO outsourcing of security and logistics contracts to Afghan companies has improved, and dozens of contracts have been redirected after they were found to have involved corrupt or violent Afghan groups.
None of this, of course, allows a definitive prediction of success. But Afghanistan, the United States and our allies are in a much better place than many appreciate because of Allen’s leadership during America’s longest war; the remarkable warriors who served under him; and all the diplomats, development experts and other dedicated public servants who have continued the war effort while most of the rest of us have preferred to move on to other things.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a co-author of “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.” He has observed Afghan elections and made several trips there sponsored by the International Security Assistance Force, which Gen. John Allen commanded until Sunday. This column first appeared in The Washington Post.