Success in Iraq Shows Gen. John Allen 'Just Gets It'

Allen is credited with helping turn around Iraq war, but he will face hard questions this week about Afghanistan.


U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, top NATO Commander in Afghanistan

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Marine Corps Gen. John Allen played a key role in brokering a deal among Iraq's religious groups that many say quelled violence there. This week, he faces another daunting task: convincing U.S. lawmakers to support President Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal plan.

Allen is slated to spend hours Tuesday and Thursday before House and Senate committees answering hundreds of questions about the decade-long war, which Obama intends to end by 2014.

Analysts expect the hearings to have plenty of tense moments due to new doubts created by a spate of incidents that threaten to force the U.S. to abandon the Afghanistan war. But then, Allen's experience in stabilizing Iraq's Anbar province provided him ample on-the-job training for tense moments, experts say.

"He was just terrific with the local sheiks in Anbar," says Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council official now at the Brookings Institution, who spent time in that part of Iraq during the so-called Sons of Iraq movement. Allen "developed alliances, and figured out who we could work with--and who wouldn't work with us," Pollack says.

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"The sheiks would always say to me that when he made promises he made damn sure he came through on those promises," Pollack says. "That was really important to them. ... Local leaders knew they could trust the marines, and John Allen was key to that."

The Sons of Iraq effort succeeded at turning former militants into U.S. partners. Analysts say parts of the program have been replicated and implemented by former Gen. David Petraeus and Allen in some parts of Afghanistan.

Anthony Blinken, deputy assistant to President Obama and national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, said Friday at a forum in Washington that historians will decide whether invading Iraq was a strategic success or stumble. But Blinken said Iraq is "less violent" and "more democratic," as well as "more prosperous," than it has been in decades. Analysts say that would not have happened without Allen's work in Anbar.

"Allen really made the Sons of Iran movement happen," says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official and now a defense analyst at the Center for American Progress. "In my view, the Arab Awakening was more important than the surge. Once he did that, and the Sunnis partnered with us instead of going after the Shia … violence really decreased."

Pollack credits Allen with being one of the first U.S. generals to "recognize that this was not a capture-them-and-kill-them kind of counterterrorism operation," says Pollack. "He gets how to integrate the political and the military. He just gets it."

The Brookings analyst was so impressed with Allen's work in Iraq that he places him in the rarefied air of some of America's "smartest and savviest" generals like Petraeus and former U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Anthony Zinni. Indeed, his efforts in Iraq helped him continue climbing up the chain of command. He impressed the president and Pentagon leaders so much that he was tapped to replace the legendary Petraeus as Afghanistan commander.

Allen was roundly hailed for his work in Iraq in the late 2000s, but his name has appeared in headlines lately for all the wrong kinds of reasons.

Allen joined Obama in publicly apologizing to the Afghan people after U.S. soldiers mistakenly burned Korans and other holy Muslim texts. The general found himself again in the spotlight last week after an American soldier allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians.

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"Why wouldn't we? Why wouldn't we?" Allen said of the apology during a recent television interview. "This is the central word of God for them. Why wouldn't we? We didn't do it on purpose. But we should apologize. And now we get on with the relationship."

Lawmakers surely will pepper the general with questions about the incident. Republican lawmakers will pound Allen for joining Obama's public apology--many hawkish GOP lawmakers believe the U.S., and especially its military, should never say it is sorry.