April 28, 2011

How Allen's Time In Iraq May Serve Him In Afghanistan

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Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen has been selected to replace Gen. David Petraeus in Afghanistan. Allen is a low-key officer, who gained fame within military circles for his work in Iraq. He was an architect of "The Sunni Awakening" movement, which brought together tribal leaders to fight al-Qaida and support the Iraqi government. It was an important step in turning around the Iraq war.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

President Obama introduced his new national security team at the White House today. It's a lineup of generals, diplomats and career public servants who have worked together before.

NORRIS: The Senate must approve all the picks. If it does, Leon Panetta will take over at the Pentagon, Ryan Crocker will be ambassador to Afghanistan, and the president picked General David Petraeus to become head of the CIA.

President BARACK OBAMA: Just as General Petraeus changed the way that our military fights and wins wars in the 21st century, I have no doubt that Director Petraeus will guide our intelligence professionals as they continue to adapt and innovate in an ever-changing world.

NORRIS: To replace Petraeus as top commander in Afghanistan, the president selected Lieutenant General John Allen.

Pres. OBAMA: As a battle-tested combat leader in Iraq, he helped turn the tide in Anbar province. As deputy commander of Central Command, he's respected in the region and has been deeply involved in planning and executing our strategy in Afghanistan.

NORRIS: President Obama speaking this afternoon at the White House.

BLOCK: Now, we're going to learn more about two members of the president's reshuffled national security team. First, Lieutenant General John Allen.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reports on how Allen's experience in Iraq might serve him in Afghanistan.

TOM BOWMAN: Lieutenant General Allen is not your typical hard-charging Marine with a nickname like Marine legends who were called Brute or Chesty or Howlin' Mad. Allen is a quiet, unassuming prep school graduate who went on to earn three master's degrees. Most Marines are known for taking a hill, but Allen gained fame for his work as a behind-the-scenes operative in Iraq.

Lieutenant General JOHN ALLEN (Marine Corps): It is good to see you back again. It is my honor to see you again.

BOWMAN: That's General Allen four years ago in Iraq, meeting with a Sunni sheikh in Anbar province. NPR followed Allen around as he tried to convince Sunni leaders to break with al-Qaida. Allen explained that such a political alliance, even with Sunni fighters who were shooting Americans, was the only way to end the violence.

Lt. Gen. ALLEN: In the counterinsurgency struggle, you can only kill your way so far to victory. We are now past that point.

BOWMAN: Allen and the Americans developed what became known as the Sunni Awakening, the successful effort to get sheikhs and their fighters to side with the Americans and the Iraqi government against al-Qaida.

John Nagl, who served with the Army in Iraq and now heads the Center for a New American Security, says General Allen deserves a lot of credit for the Sunni Awakening.

Dr. JOHN NAGL (President, Center for a New American Security): John Allen did an awful lot of the on-the-ground work, traveling to countries in the region, personally meeting with Sunni leaders who had dispersed all over the region.

BOWMAN: Nagl says the leaders were prodded and persuaded by Allen.

Dr. NAGL: The Sunnis switched sides in what became, I think, the decisive event to the war in Iraq.

BOWMAN: It just really brought the violence down quite a bit.

Dr. NAGL: The violence dropped dramatically as a result of the Awakening, and the war changed.

BOWMAN: Now, the question is can General Allen change the war in Afghanistan and bring it to a close after a decade of American involvement?

Allen has never commanded troops in Afghanistan, but retired Lieutenant General David Barno, who led U.S. forces there, says that's not an issue. That's because the focus now will be on the political side of the war, and Barno says that's where General Allen's skills come in.

Lieutenant General DAVID BARNO (Army, Retired): There's going to be negotiation of some sort with the Taliban. Some of those political skills and those interpersonal skills will be as important as combat skills on the battlefield for the senior commander.

BOWMAN: Retired Marine Colonel T.X. Hammes has written extensively on counterinsurgency, and he says Afghanistan is more difficult than Iraq.

Colonel T.X. HAMMES (Marine Corps, Retired): Because what applies in Iraq is not likely to apply in Afghanistan. They're very, very different cultures; very, very different structures; very different histories.

BOWMAN: General Allen has one other important trait, what T.X. Hammes calls his real adaptability. It served Allen well in Iraq, and he'll need it in Afghanistan.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.