WASHINGTON — Five years ago in Iraq, when U.S. forces were on the verge of losing control of the country, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen was one of the architects behind plans to woo Sunni tribal leaders in the fight against insurgents.
Military experts credit that “Anbar Awakening” with turning the tide in Iraq, and Allen with establishing himself as a thoughtful leader whose cultural awareness and battlefield savvy make him one of the top minds in the military today.
Now, the White House has tapped Allen as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, once again inserting him into a war whose outcome is unclear and will depend largely on cooperation from tribal leaders.
If approved by Congress, Allen will receive a fourth star and take over the post in September.
Senior administration officials said he was the first choice for the job, and his appointment will help ensure a seamless transition from Army Gen. David Petraeus. Colleagues of the 51-year-old Allen say although he’s not as well known as Petraeus outside of the military, inside it he’s viewed as a rising star and a natural fit for the post.
“This guy is a winner. He’s the first-round draft choice for this job,” said former Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak, who worked closely with Allen in that post. “He’s the epitome of the soldier statesman. He takes the time to put himself into somebody else’s shoes, see what makes them tick, and adapt.”
Allen has served as deputy commander of U.S. Central Command for two years, except for a brief stint as acting commander of CENTCOM between Petraeus’ departure from that job and Gen. James Mattis’ appointment as his permanent replacement.
He has also served as the head of Asian and Pacific Affairs for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Commandant of Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy.
But his time as Deputy Commanding General for the II Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq from 2006 to 2008 set the stage for his latest appointment. Krulak said Allen played the key role in bringing local leaders together, laying out his goals and convincing them that working with U.S. troops was in their best interests.
Despite that, Allen keeps a low profile, even within military circles.
Retired Col. Joe Collins, professor at the National War College and a friend of Allen, said he’s humble almost to a fault, with a listen-first approach to new ideas and strategies. Behind the scenes, Allen has been a leading scholar on maneuver warfare within the Marine Corps for the last two decades.
“What people can expect from him is someone who can bring to the battlefield intelligence, integrity and experience,” Collins said. “It’s obvious that he’s a great Marine, but he’s also a great thinker.”
That’s similar to the scholarly approach of Petraeus in Afghanistan, although without some of the perceived political ambition. Ward Carroll, editor of Military.com, served with Allen at the Naval Academy and said he thinks the handover of the command will mean little disruption, because of their similar approaches.
“Allen is comfortable with the media, willing to talk in high terms and comfortable enough to convey it,” he said. “He’s articulate, well-read, a student of military history.”
But he’s not too removed from the reality of war, Carroll said. The last time the two men saw each other was about a year ago at a memorial service for a young Marine. Allen gave the eulogy, talking to the crowd about the loss of a hero and the duty of the troops still fighting overseas.
“He knows and sincerely feels the sacrifice,” Carroll said. “This is a guy I’d follow anywhere, and I’d be fine with my son following him, too.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this story.