General John R. Allen is unusual for a Marine Corps general. He’s quiet, bookish. Thomas Ricks, with the Center for a New American Security and author of the blog ‘Best Defense’, says even Allen’s fantasy life is a little odd.
“Very unusually, he once told me that had he not been a marine general, he would like to have been archaeologist,” Ricks said.
And we’re not talking Indiana Jones. Gen. Allen told Ricks that his big archaeologist-hero was the British Colonial Administrator Gertrude Bell. She helped draw the modern lines of Iraq in the 1920s.
“Gen. Allen kept the writings of Getrude Bell handy, quoted them frequently, and quoted them … off the top of his head,” Ricks said.
John Nagl, the president of the Center for a New American Security who also served in Iraq said, that Allen’s choice of a British woman who was famous for her cultural sensitivity to a group of people very different from herself “speaks to what he values, what he values in himself, and the conduct he is going to try to model.”
This sort of empathy was evident early on, according to Gen. Charles Krulak, the commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 until 1999. Krulak remembers Allen as the ideal scholar-warrior, a voracious reader with three masters degrees.
Allen served under Krulak in peace-keeping operations in the Balkans and Haiti.
“You have a young officer coming up through a corps where people are focused on this new vision of this new type of warfare, this asymmetric warfare,” Krulak said.
Allen wrote that after Haiti, he came to see humanitarian work as a type of low-intensity combat. And, it turns out; Haiti was a good finishing school for counterinsurgency in Iraq.
“Allen cut his teeth on some of these issues in Haiti, Gen. Petraeus also spent some time in Haiti-and in both cases these very intellectual generals who read books as well as do push-ups, came to understand that building government stability depends a great deal on government legitimacy, having the support of the people,” said John Nagl, who wrote the modern counterinsurgency field manual with Gen. Petraeus in 2006
In fact, while Petraeus became the public face of the Iraq War, for many Americans, it was Allen who put in serious face time with the Iraqis.
“Gen. Allen came in, reached out to tribes, not only in Iraq themselves; many of them had to flee the region because of al-Qaeda and intertribal warfare,” Tom Ricks said. “Some were in Gulf States and others were in Syria. He actually pursued them, went to these places, met with them in the lobby of Sheraton of Amman for Tea and coffee, talked, about what it would take to bring them back.”
Strange as it sounds, a cup of tea in the Amman Sheraton could lead to tangible gains on the ground in Iraq.
“You could try to recruit police in Anbar and get nowhere just by putting out the sign and getting out the word,” Ricks said. “But then Gen. Allen would be conducting negotiations with the sheikh-the next day and 300 police would show up right outside the police station.”
The integration with the locals reflected more than cultural sensitivity. It was a canny military strategy, an adaptation to war, Iraqi-style. The question now is whether Gen Allen can do this in Afghanistan — especially with the troop drawdown well underway.
“If anybody can do it, it’ s John Allen, but he now has the challenge of performing that same task stabilizing the eastern part of Afghanistan, the part that’s closest to Pakistan,” Nagl said.
All Gen. Allen has to do is re-integrate Afghan tribes, train the Afghan Army, defend against militant attacks from Pakistan — oh, and please a president, congress, and the American people who want nothing more than to forget Afghanistan.
It could be enough to make him wish maybe he hadn’t been so successful in Iraq.