Helmand Province, Afghanistan — In late August 2011, General John R. Allen visited a base built atop the ruins of a 19th-century British fort here. Allen, an avid historian, grasped the irony of the setting. Over the previous 150 years, two British armies and one Russian army had left Afghanistan in frustration. Now Allen was in command of the fourth army to leave. He is the last NATO field commander, charged with extracting 140,000 international troops from combat while fighting a war with an uncertain outcome against an enemy with a certain sanctuary in next-door Pakistan.
By this year’s end, Allen must reduce his U.S. force by a third without conceding populated areas. He must place Afghan battalions with uneven leadership into the breach. And he must shore up a defense-in-depth to ward off attacks launched from inside Pakistan. The decisions of John Allen, age 58, a courteous gentleman from Virginia who is virtually unknown to the American public, will greatly affect whether Afghanistan holds together or descends into chaos.
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