Washington (AFP) April 28, 2011
Lieutenant General John Allen, tapped Thursday to take over as US commander in Afghanistan, made his name in the Iraq war by striking alliances with Sunni tribal leaders.
Allen, 57, will be the first Marine to serve as chief of the US-led war effort in Afghanistan, where he succeeds another officer lauded for his success in Iraq, General David Petraeus.
The three-star general, described as cerebral and reserved, was deployed in restive western Iraq from 2006 to 2008, where he played a key role in the pivotal "Anbar Awakening" that helped salvage the troubled war effort.
The strategy, initiated by an Army colonel, involved a risky bid to forge ties with Sunni leaders in Anbar who turned against Al-Qaeda militants -- a bold approach that proved decisive.
"The Anbar Awakening was absolutely critical for the violence reduction and in its early stages it was very controversial," said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
"There was a lot of resistance around coalition headquarters in Iraq to the idea of negotiating with the enemy," Biddle told AFP.
"Allen, along with (Army) Colonel (Sean) McFarland deserve a tremendous amount of credit for going out on a limb and committing to a position that was very controversial at the time," he said.
In Afghanistan, similar efforts to broker peace talks with insurgent leaders or woo Taliban fighters have yet to produce a major breakthrough.
Allen has been nominated to head to Kabul as part of a shakeup by President Barack Obama that will see Petraeus take over leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency as he wraps up his tenure as commander in Afghanistan.
As the current deputy of US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, Allen has focused much of his time on Iran, overseeing contingency plans for a possible conflict with Tehran, analysts say.
Past tours of duty have taken him to the Balkans, and he is well-versed in the daunting Afghanistan dossier that he is about to take over.
Allen is a "very smart strategic thinker" and "very discreet," said John Nagl, a retired Army officer and president of the Center for a New Security, a Washington think tank.
"He should be better recognized for his accomplishments."
As commander, Allen will preside over a gradual handover to Afghan security forces from NATO-led troops, with Western officials hoping to pave the way for the eventual exit of all foreign troops by 2014.
Amid a dogged, resilient Taliban insurrection, Allen also will have to manage a planned drawdown of the 100,000-strong US force, with Obama's advisers keen to reduce the American presence.
A graduate with honors from the Naval Academy in 1976, Allen has pursued graduate studies throughout his career, earning masters degrees in national security and strategic intelligence.
As the head of a Marine battalion, he participated in operations handling a wave of Cuban and Haitian refugees in 1994 at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba before deploying to Bosnia for a NATO peacekeeping mission after the signing of the 1995 Dayton accords.
In "The Gamble," journalist Tom Ricks' book about the troop surge in Iraq, Allen is quoted as saying that if he had not become a Marine officer he would have been an archeologist.
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