The Brass

Are We Winning in Afghanistan?

An exclusive interview with Gen. John Allen, commander of America's forgotten war.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

The lack of a clearly defined narrative about Afghanistan, combined with election noise and economic worries in the United States, has pushed the war out of the American consciousness. In recent weeks, the spate of insider attacks put it back on the media’s map, temporarily. But the next several months will in many ways shape the U.S. exit between now and December 2014. Soon, we will learn how many troops will remain in the country. We’ll learn what impact attacks on militants may have on the battlefield. We’ll see if the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) can truly stand on their own. And we’ll learn just how fast U.S. forces will be sent to the exits.

FP‘s Gordon Lubold sat down with Gen. John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), in his office in Kabul on Aug. 29 — as he scrambled to stop the insider attacks against U.S. forces and just over two months before he submits his recommendation to President Barack Obama on the size of the force he thinks he’ll need through next year. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

In addition to troop levels and the state of the ANSF, Allen talked about a new phenomenon in the war: a series of local uprisings that remain disconnected from each other and the Afghan government but that could possibly come together to pose a serious threat to the Taliban. Talking at greater length about the uprisings than he has before, and drawing a link to the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, Allen said, "This is a really important moment for this campaign because the brutality of the Taliban and the desire for local communities to have security has become so, so prominent — as it was in Anbar — that they’re willing to take the situation into their own hands to do this."

Meanwhile, Allen provided some insight into how he will frame his report to the president: "The battle space has really changed. I used to say how much combat power I’m going to need. It’s not any longer a pure measure of combat power, because much of what is generating success for us is less about conventional maneuver units than it is about the combination of conventional maneuver units with the success that is being achieved with the security force assistance." The Afghans, he says, are really stepping up to the task. Washington will certainly be watching to see whether he is right.

Foreign Policy: Thanks again for sitting down with us. I am particularly interested in these uprisings in the east and how you view them. They are in their nascency, but I am told they may be a significant trend down the line. Are we talking "Andar Awakening"?

Gen. John Allen: They’re actually calling it the Andar Awakening … to plagiarize our Anbar Awakening. [But] let me just make a couple of general remarks. It’s been a pretty busy summer. We’re about 20 days from finishing up the recovery of the surge. We are inserting our Security Force Assistance Teams. We’re reposturing the battle space to account for that. The ANSF is really taking over much more of the fighting than it has done in the past. The Security Force Assistance Teams are really accelerating that.

Unprompted by me, as I circulate in the battle space, the brigade commanders are uniformly, in different regional commands, using the term "game-changer" with the Security Force Assistance Teams in really accelerating where we want the ANSF to go. So the recovery of the surge, the reposturing of the battle space, the insertion of the Security Force Assistance Teams, the ANSF moving more into the lead, fighting the insurgency, the beginning of the base closure….

All of that has been going on this summer…. On the whole, the campaign is on track.

What I have been asked in the past is, "When are you shifting the main effort from the south to the east?" And I respond with, "That’s not the question." I’m weighting the fight in the east because they need the resources, ’cause that, that insurgent fight is different than the insurgent fight everywhere else in the battle space. But I’m shifting the main effort right now, and the main effort is shifting in that we, ISAF, will become the supporting effort. The ANSF will become the main effort….

FP: Is that where you wanted to be in terms of the schedule, the ANSF taking over?

Allen: It’s actually ahead of time…. What you see I have in the battle space now is a combination of advisors and main-force units. The advisors are inside the Afghan units. The main-force units are partnered with them or are conducting independent ops, and there are really very few independent ISAF operations anymore. It is very, very substantially partnered, and in many cases they are actually ANSF-led.

Now I just came back from [Regional Command-East], where I spent a good bit of time earlier this week with both of the ANSF corps commanders. We’re seeing the ANSF routinely conduct operations now from squad level to corps level. I mean, they’re running the entire spectrum of operations. Do they need help? The answer is yes. They need a lot of help still, because we still haven’t recruited the whole force. Which I think is important for people to understand. We’ve probably got another 15,000 to 20,000 to go [to get to a total force of 352,000]. But we don’t finish the whole build of the force until December of next year. So I’m actually pretty pleased with where the ANSF is right now, given where they were just two years ago. But much work remains to be done. We’ve got enablers that have to come online. We’ve got to build their capabilities to employ, for example, artillery. We’ve got to work very hard on their sustainment and resupply capabilities.

FP: Which means airlift, for example —

Allen: Airlift, and we can talk about the air piece of it. That is one that has got a lot of my attention, and it’s going to be a long time to fix that actually. But the sustainment piece of this, as I actually was saying just this morning to my leaders, a young army might do quite well in close combat, but young armies fail typically to sustain themselves. And so we’re putting a tremendous amount of effort, actually, into engendering habits of sustainment. And it’s everything from being able to properly convoy the equipment and the fuels and that sort of thing to the various places for distribution to getting the spare parts to the mechanics so they can turn the wrenches in the motor pools to keep the vehicles up.

FP: You just returned from the east. Tell me about these uprisings against the Taliban and how you see them. 

Allen: They’re really an important moment, actually. And I had the conversation with [President Hamid Karzai] this morning. Each, each one is an organic movement. And they’re popping up in a lot of different places. We’re going to start to plot them on a map — we’ve actually done it already — but we’re going to do some analysis as to, is it tribal? Is it ethnic? What was the particular cause? What is the potential solution?

[Andar district in Ghazni province] is the most conspicuous right now, but there’s another really substantial one that’s growing in Kamdesh in southern Nuristan. There’s one growing in Wardak. There’s one growing in Ghor. We’ve heard of one in Faryab.

And so what we have to do is, as I said to [Karzai] this morning, it’s not just about supporting Andar in Ghazni. This is a really important moment for this campaign because the brutality of the Taliban and the desire for local communities to have security has become so, so prominent — as it was in Anbar — that they’re willing to take the situation into their own hands to do this.

FP: What is the proper role for ISAF to play here?

Allen: We’re not playing a role. If we do at all, it will be always through GIRoA [government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] … because we don’t want an uprising to appear to be responsive to us. We want it to be responsive to the local conditions, and we ultimately would like to see GIRoA be the solution for them. And that’s the right thing to do.

So I think that as we analyze each one of these, each one started for a different reason, and so we’ve got to be sensitive to the kinds of assistance. When I say "we," I always mean GIRoA, the Afghan government. It has to be sensitive to why it started and how conceivably it can help the people. They ought to want to help the people. And how they might help the people is going to be different in each place. It could be about local employment. It could be about a school. It could be about a clinic. It could be about fresh water. Just a little bit of help gives the people in that village, or cluster of villages, a choice for the first time. Because right now their only choice is fighting the Taliban or being repressed by the Taliban.

FP: Could the kind of assistance these villages might be provided include arms?

Allen: The answer is yes, but that’s a decision made by the Afghans.

FP: You seem fairly bullish on this trend.

Allen: I think it is…. In fact, when I first visited Ghazni in August of last year, Andar was considered almost terra incognita. We had to fight into Andar and fight out of Andar. Now Andar is a place that’s completely different. And this will be, for Afghans who are watching the world unfold for them, what they’re seeing is that the ANSF has created a security bubble in a lot of places around the country. Now there’s still a lot of fighting that’s going on, but there are people that now — again, the conversation with the president today — there are places in this country where the people can have a post-conflict conversation.

We saw this in Anbar. It is very much like what we experienced in Anbar. Now is the time to surge capabilities for governance and economic opportunity into the "white space" that has been created by and largely by the Afghan forces. So that’s one condition that’s being seen in the battle space. But another condition that’s being seen in the battle space is what we just talked about, which is people who are tired of the constant oppression and the nature of the quality of their life inflicted on them by the Taliban. They want something different, but they don’t really have any choices. And so this gives them a choice as well.

FP: I understand the need to put an Afghan face on this. But to whatever extent the Afghan government plays a role, they’ll still need coalition assistance, say, in the form of a coalition helicopter. Suddenly the help looks very Western, right?

Allen: I’m telling you right now, we’re resupplying in Kamdesh using Afghan Army helicopters. They’re getting up there. They’re doing it. They’ve inserted commandos up there. They’re resupplying local elements up there. They’re maintaining the ANP [Afghan National Police] in some key checkpoints and strong points. They’re maintaining them. Every now and again, they’ll run out of helicopters, and we’ll help ’em. But part of this is a genuine effort, a genuine desire on behalf of the Afghans to truly make this an Afghan spontaneous uprising, but an Afghan-supported effort, too. Which I think is great.

FP: Let’s just say you’re leaving ISAF by next spring. Do you have so much hope in this that things could look quite a bit different by then

Allen: Well, I think there are some places it could. I think there’s some places; it’s really too early to tell.

FP: Right. Peace won’t break out across the entire land.

Allen: No, that’s right, but there will be some…. Remember, it didn’t all break out in Iraq at the same time. It started in Anbar. If properly nurtured, if properly nurtured, these could become important local influences in blunting the Taliban’s attempt to get into the population.

FP: The surge troops will soon redeploy, and you will have roughly 68,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan. You have said publicly that you would like to maintain as much of that force as possible through next year.

Allen: Well, let me just give you a broad idea of how we’re disposed at [68,000], and we’ll be at [68,000] on 1 October. A great deal of the conventional combat power is going to be in the east to continue to partner closely with [Afghan units]. So we’re going to have conventional combat power in here to partner with them on operations, to do corps-level operations, where they’re hitting the enemy simultaneously across the network. We’ve also, though, inserted a lot of advisors in there, too. So we’re both advising and we’re partnering…. [One Afghan corps] commander said to my division commander, "On the 1st of July, I got it." And he does; he does got it. His name is Hamid. He’s very good, and he’s out there kicking ass. I’m telling you.

But we have loaded it up with Afghans now, so there is a full corps of Afghans, a battalion of [Afghan National Civil Order Police]. We’ve gotten permission to increase the Afghan Local Police in there. We’re using commando battalions to do focused operations. So even though our numbers have come down, we’ve still got a substantial British contingent, a substantial Marine contingent with Army enablers, and a large Afghan presence there.

FP: So you’re not worried about the south?

Allen: Well, I’m going to watch it very closely. I’m going to watch it very closely because this in the end, of course, is the spiritual homeland of the Pashtun rebellion. So for us it is less about a full-up conventional battle here than it is about consolidating our holds on the population, which is the key terrain and the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency operation.

FP: I want to ask you about Pakistani influence.

Allen: It’s substantial. The Haqqanis are still very active. The Haqqanis as a group, it’s important to keep an eye on them…. Now again, good Irishman here, I’m tapping wood every time I say this, but the fact that there have not been large-scale attacks inside [Kabul] — which is one of the most threatened cities on the planet, given the threat streams emanating out of North Waziristan and out of terrorist concentrations along the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and inside Afghanistan — is a direct reflection to, I think, the success of our posturing of conventional forces and the use of special operations forces in very close integration.

FP: When will you make your recommendation to President Obama regarding troop strength?

Allen: My goal now is to have something out of here by the middle of November.

FP: What will it include?

Allen: It’s going to have several parts to it. I’m going to assess the state of the insurgency, as we saw it this year. I’m going to assess the state of the ANSF, as it has evolved this year. And, you know, I really think that’s good news. In fact, both of those are good-news stories. I’m going to assess the operational conditions in ’13 and then make a recommendation on what I think to be the kind of forces that I’ll need in ’13 and ’14.

And I used to use a different term because the battle space has really changed. I used to say how much combat power I’m going to need. It’s not any longer a pure measure of combat power, because much of what is generating success for us is less about conventional maneuver units than it is about the combination of conventional maneuver units with the success that is being achieved with the security force assistance. So it is a combination of forces and capabilities which I’ll clearly depict as being in synergy that I’ll seek to make in the recommendation. So it’s about numbers, but within those numbers, it’s about being able to depict the kinds of forces necessary to continue to generate success.

 Twitter: @glubold

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