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No True Glory: A Front line Account of the Battle for Fallujah

Fallujah: Iraq’s most dangerous city unexpectedly emerged as the major battleground of the Iraqi insurgency. For twenty months, one American battalion after another tried to quell the violence, culminating in a bloody, full-scale assault. Victory came at a terrible price: 151 Americans and thousands of Iraqis were left dead.
The epic battle for Fallujah revealed the startling connections between policy and combat that are a part of the new reality of war.

The Marines had planned to slip into Fallujah “as soft as fog.” But after four American contractors were brutally murdered, President Bush ordered an attack on the city–against the advice of the Marines. The assault sparked a political firestorm, and the Marines were forced to withdraw amid controversy and confusion–only to be ordered a second time to take a city that had become an inferno of hate and the lair of the archterrorist al-Zarqawi.

Based on months spent with the battalions in Fallujah and hundreds of interviews at every level–senior policymakers, negotiators, generals, and soldiers and Marines on the front lines–No True Glory is a testament to the bravery of the American soldier and a cautionary tale about the complex–and often costly–interconnected roles of policy, politics, and battle in the twenty-first century.

Reviews of No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah

“The gripping account of the valor of the Marines in the fiercest urban combat since Hue. Yet, the even-handed description of the vacillation regarding policy will likely please neither some of our senior officers nor the White House.”
–Former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger

“The best book on the U.S. military in Iraq to emerge so far.”
–Tom Ricks of The Washington Post

“The finest chronicle of the strategy behind battle and the fighting during battle that I’ve ever read.”
–General Carl E. Mundy, USMC (ret) Commandant of the Marine Corps

Implications from Iraqi Freedom for the Marine Corps

By MajGen Ray Smith, USMC (ret.) & Bing West

This article will first address broadly the recent war in Iraq, and then focus upon matters most pertinent to the Marine Corps.

Geopolitics. At the broad level of geopolitics, the significance of Iraqi Freedom was an increase in what may be called “the deterrent quotient”; that is, nations antithetic to the United States will tread more cautiously. Defeat encourages aggression and victory discourages aggressors. The speed and ease of the televised American victory in Iraq impressed the global audience. Conversely, after Saigon fell in 1975, the US experienced a bout of national dyspepsia and for a period of about seven years we were challenged by the Soviet Union, by China, by Cuba and even by Iran and Nicaragua. On the other hand, after Baghdad fell in Aril, Iran, North Korea and Syria, to name but a few, reacted by avoiding actions which would antagonize the United States. Secretary Rumsfeld growled at Syria, which hastily expelled some of the Iraqi supporters of Saddam who had fled to Damascus. The military leaders of nations hostile to the US will counsel against their governments openly supporting terrorists, because they know this President has the will and possesses an array of weapons with which to strike. Iraqi Freedom abetted, rather than diverted from the war on terrorists.

Conversely, by demonstrating convincingly our martial superiority, the campaign against Saddam’s army probably strengthened the determination of countries like Iran to follow the lead of North Korea and acquire nuclear weapons as their deterrent against any potential American attack intent on regime elimination. Indeed, a principal reason for the war was to remove Saddam before he gained a nuclear capability. So on balance the war in Iraq altered national security priorities away from large-scale conventional war and toward combating terrorists, especially preventing the use of weapons which produce mass casualties, and dealing with the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.

Overall Conventional Power. America emerged from the war as the world’s military colossus, able and willing to employ overwhelming force unilaterally. The panoply of arms illustrated that the US can strike any country with a combination of lethal blows. To the extent that Desert Storm in 1991 was remembered for its air campaign, Iraqi Freedom will be remembered for its ground campaign. America can win a war by leading with air or by leading with land forces. With unassailable air superiority, American fixed-wing aircraft pounded both Baghdad command centers and military vehicles outside Baghdad. Having learned from Desert Storm, a large percentage of Iraqi crews abandoned their armor and their vehicles at the outset of the war. This flight was followed by a second wave of desertions as the American armored convoys approached. American artillery provided fire support while their counterbattery radars nullified Iraqi indirect fires. As in Desert Storm, the Abrams tank was unstoppable. The combination of direct firepower, maneuver, indirect supporting arms, and rapid resupply exceeded expectations.

The Iraqi army did not fight with cohesion or determination, either because they wouldn’t, or as we have postulated here, they couldn’t. Either way, the highly publicized and lengthy buildup to the war psychologically unhinged the Iraqi armed forces. They had decided they were beaten before the war began. In all wars there comes a tipping point when the weight of the moral to the physical weapons systems becomes exponential. Often when Napoleon appeared on the battlefield, his mere presence caused the opposing army to believe defeat was inevitable, prompting Napoleon to declare that the moral was to the physical in battle as three to one. In Iraq, it was twenty to one. It certainly is in our interest to maintain that air of invincibility, both for deterrent and for warfighting purposes.

Iraqi Freedom was more a demonstration of America’s martial capabilities than a two-sided battle against a tenacious foe. Keys to Maneuver Warfare are the speed, agility and ruthlessness to shatter the enemy’s cohesion even while leaving most of his forces physically intact. The infantry’s instinct to close with and destroy the enemy at any point of attack must remain at the forefront of training. We do not know how the body politic will respond where American casualties are significant, which will inevitably happen in some future war. Nonetheless, when casualties occur unexpectedly, a commander must keep focus on the mission and not halt to take counsel of his fears. In peacetime, an accident always results in an investigation and often relief of commands all the way up the immediate chain of command. In wartime, risks must be run and some decisions will be wrong. Marines at all leadership levels must beware of hesitancy due to casualties.

When casualties and setbacks occurred on 23-25 March, the press turned from highly positive to highly negative in the space of a few days. There were reports about U.S. forces bogged down in the desert and a flawed Pentagon strategy. While these stories were coming in, Baghdad fell. The dizzying speed with which the press can report from the battlefield and the alacrity with which individual battles are headlined as overall trends suggest that when our forces do suffer heavy casualties, the fortitude and patience of our elected leaders will be tested.

Marine Role at the Operational Level. The major observation is that Maneuver Warfare worked. The Iraqi order of battle in the I MEF zone included numerous irregular forces (fedeyeen, Ba’ath Party special police and militias) six regular Army division and two Republican Guard Divisions. Two divisions were deployed forward near the Kuwaiti border, defending the oilfields and the Euphrates crossings. The others were disposed in depth along the Basra to Baghdad highway, which parallels the Tigris River and is the historic invasion route for armies attacking from the Gulf.

Before the war, LtGen James Conway, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force commander, and Major General James Mattis, commanding the 1st Marine Division, had plotted an aggressive strategy which provided a road map throughout the campaign. Colonel Joseph Dunford’s 5th Marines Regimental Combat Team attacked nine hours ahead of the war plan’s schedule in order to secure the oilfields before they could be torched. The 7th Marines seized their portion of the oilfields the next day, The destruction of the 51st Iraqi Division in the oilfields suggested main attack was directed east toward Basra and then up the Tigris. Instead, This sideslip allowed the 1st Marine Division to by-pass five Iraqi regular Army divisions and one Republican Guard Division, which were held in place by the 3rd MAW, the ___ MEU and the UK Division (part of the MEF).

The 1st Marine Division then swung 70 kilometers to the west to pick up the highways leading to Baghdad. Confusion and hesitation at Nasariah cost the 1st Regiment a day, but the 5th and 7th moved their convoys north on schedule, thanks to the Logistics Light or LOG LITE supply system of the division. For a brief time (23-24 March) at the city of Nasariah, it looked like the Iraqi tactic of mobile teams firing RPGs from cities would significantly slow down the convoys. However, a few days later at the city of Diwaneah, where the fedayeen posed a threat to the western flanks of the convoys, Marine infantry advanced and cleared the trench lines. There were no further attacks from that city, which illustrated that the threat of the fedayeen to logistics lines had been overblown. While Task Force Tarawa and the British forces secured the southern portion of Iraq, the 1st Marine Division marched on Baghdad.

The 5th had reached Route 27 and was turning northeast to the Tigris on 27 March when an unfortunate and widely denied ‘pause’, ordered by the Coalition Land Forces Component Commander, halted the division for several days. When the attack resumed, the 5th feinted as if intending to charge straight north up Highway One. Instead, the 5th RCT suddenly cut northeast and crossed the Tigris at a seam in the artillery fans between the two Special Republican Guard divisions on the east bank. General Mattis drove to the front, surveyed the fighting and ordered a ‘run & gun’ sprint for 120 kilometers in two days, with 36 tanks in the lead as the hammer and battalion 3/5 flushing the fedayeen from the culverts along the highway. The major resistance occurred on 3-4 April along Route 6 near Baghdad. The tanks and hard-backed humvees of RCT5 led the way in a running fight, while again it was dismounted infantry who delivered the coup de grace. The vast majority of the enemy’s main forces were behind them and irrelevant, and nothing stood between them and Baghdad but the Diyala River. To the extent that Desert Storm is remembered for its air campaign, Iraqi Freedom will be remembered for the ground campaign.

Once at the Baghdad Bridge over the Diyala River, Colonel Steven Hummer’s 7th Marines took the lead and battalions 3/4, 1/7 and 3/7 charged across the Diyala River, followed by Colonel John Toulan’s 1st Marines. The overall war plan called for raids into Baghdad, but the division ‘forgot’ to include withdrawal plans after each raid and on 9 April the Marines and Iraqis tore down Saddam’s statue near the Palestinian Hotel, which symbolized the end of sustained military resistance.

The Iraqi regular forces did not put up much of a fight, just as they didn’t in Kuwait in 1991. However, one should not dismiss them as fighters. They didn’t put up much of a fight because our combined arms power, coupled with a brilliant maneuver- oriented plan, made a cohesive defense impossible. The by-passed divisions were placed on the horns of a dilemma; if they left their prepared position to counter the maneuver of the Division, the pilots of 3rd MAW (and the Navy and Air Force) would pounce on them. Any Iraqi armor surviving the air onslaught would be, in the open terrain, at the mercy of the superior range and optics of the M1A1s and LAVs.

The Iraqi regular forces, if attacked in their fixed defenses, tried to fight. For instance, the 51st Division, supposed to be unreliable, fought as well as any other division the MEF faced. In operational terms, the attack on the 51st was frontal and with only a few hours ‘shaping’, in order to achieve tactical surprise and seize the oilfields intact. As a result, the effects of maneuver, deception and combined arms that the rest of the Iraqis suffered did not apply to the 51st. Had we pounded our way from Basra to Baghdad, as the Iraqis expected and we might have done in the past, we suspect the reputation of the Iraqis as fighters might be better today than it is.

The culture of the Marine Corps, given the losses in the trenches of World War I and in storming the beaches in World War II, had led in Vietnam to an unreflecting acceptance of high casualty rates. After Vietnam, the Corps embraced the theory of Maneuver Warfare and Iraqi Freedom was the first major war fought according to that doctrine. Employing three regimental combat teams as its fighting core, the 1st Marine Division advanced on two routes, Seven and One, and then converged onto Highway Six on the east bank of the Tigris for the final sprint to Baghdad. To pin down and bypass major Iraqi forces, the division first feinted toward Basra and later feinted toward driving straight up Route One into Baghdad. The division split the seams between major Iraqi forces, conclusively engaging by direct fire only three of the eight Iraqi divisions in its area of operations. In contrast, the 3rd Marine Air Wing attacked those divisions incessantly, delivering six million pounds of high explosives and shredding their equipment.

The march up to Baghdad and on to Takrit, the longest expedition in the history of the Marine Corps, was a remarkable achievement in maneuver, endurance and supply. The “Logistics Light” austerity combined with the determination of the crews in the convoys, C-130s, amtracs light armored vehicles and tanks to eke out the last gallon of fuel and to keep moving the three armored columns (the three RCTs), each stretching a hundred kilometers in length.

If the helicopter was the signature piece of equipment in Vietnam, the tank was the premier fighting machine in Iraqi Freedom and the night vision goggles which permitted 24-hour driving were the ‘new best thing’. Without the NVGs, the pace of the campaign would have been unsustainable. While the convoys rolled 24 hours a day, each night the battalions would coil and the battalion commander and the sergeant major were the leaders, dealing directly with the company commanders and the first sergeants.
Desert Storm in 1991 was described as a ‘Generals’ War’, because the campaign was orchestrated from the top. In contrast, Operation Iraqi Freedom was a Colonels’ War, because the rolling convoys, best pictured as discrete sets of battle wagons, attacked under the direct leadership of the regimental and battalion commanders.

Operational Implications for Marines. As missions become more joint, this leads to larger staffs far in the rear with larger Information Technology budgets. In Iraqi Freedom, the movement toward Baghdad outpaced the planning cycle of the staffs in the rear. Information technologies yielded self-licking ice cream cones, with senior staffs using chat rooms on the computer nets to fan each other’s predilections or fears. The lesson should be that senior staffs such as the Coalition Land Forces Component Command should focus on coordination before the battle and thereafter issue mission-type orders, relying on the commanders on the battlefield to fight the battle. The problem is that as the size of the staffs off the battlefield increases and as communications enable them to believe they understand what is going on, then those staffs will, with good intentions, issue authoritative orders not reflective of battle conditions. Gobbledygook and over-the-top rhetoric about the marvels of ‘networkcentric warfare’ overlooked a central fact: networks transmit the same messages simultaneously only to everyone on the net, and those at the front doing the fighting weren’t on the highly touted ‘net’.

From battalion on down in the Marine Corps, communication is primarily by radio and by voice and the distances were too long for reliable radio relay to the rear while on the move. On the other hand, the major feeds at higher joint headquarters in the rear are primarily digital and rely upon computers, supplemented by satellite photos, teleconferencing, television and video streamed from UAVs, However, on fast-moving battlefields like Iraqi Freedom, these digital technologies lag far behind the battles, where voice communications are employed and no one is taking the time to type in reports.

A singular irony of Iraqi Freedom was that the embedded press became a major source of information to the higher staffs. The reporters, with better technologies than the battalions, are trained to speak and type succinctly and to convey with clarity the information within the limits of what they understood; that is, they did not speculate; they reported what they were seeing. Early in the war, fro instance, MEF received from 3rd LAR the radio codeword ‘Sling Shot”, meaning the unit was being overrun. As the staff was scrambling to divert attack aircraft, a reporter from Fox News popped up on television and his narration showed that the LAR was overrunning the enemy, not the other way around. And when the 7th Marines entered Baghdad, a main feed showing what they were doing and the friendly crowds was CNN. LtGen Conway said he changed the plan based on the TV reports he was watching.

The press, however, is not an acceptable military communications system and the distances, sometimes even in one convoy, were too great for the PRC-119 radios. Significant use was made of commercial satellite cell phones and the Army’s Blue Force Tracker – a vehicle-mounted monitor displaying via satcom the locations of friendly units across the battlefield. Of the Marine budget for Information Technologies, 40% goes to garrison and such gargantuan and controversial projects as the Navy-Marine Corps Internet. Another 40% goes to support MAGTF activities above the battalion. Only 20% goes to the battalion and below, and most of that is for SINCGARS radios. The current trends point to a digital-based communications and information system from Washington to the Combatant Commander to corps, division and perhaps the regiment, and a voice/radio system at the fighting level. A major lesson for Iraqi Freedom is that the Marine Corps must put together a review panel, mainly of non-communicators, whose members do not have loyalties to the current IT program. Marine IT at the dismounted and mounted fighting level from battalion on down needs a radical new look.

So too does the V-22, not in terms of the program but rather of reaffirming that the aircraft will be employed in concert with Maneuver Warfare. Rotary wing transport aircraft played a marginal role in Iraqi Freedom, due to the nature of the battlefield. In the Vietnam War, the jungle and the close terrain demanded the extensive employment of helicopters. In Iraqi Freedom, as in Desert Strom, the open terrain lent itself to vehicular movement. The V22 can assure advance lodgments far in front of the main force, an impossibility with the worn-out CH-46. The V22 will open up a new dimension in Maneuver Warfare – if it is not treated as an asset too valuable to be employed radically. Marine frugality mitigates against objective risk-reward calculus. For the V 22 to live up to its advertising, those who control the Osprey must be willing to risk its loss.

Similarly, the long-distance overland movement of the AAV must be insured. The Amtracs during Iraqi Freedom performed very well indeed, and great credit goes to the crews who night after night performed maintenance and repairs even when they were physically exhausted.

In preparing for the next expedition, the Marines must ask what the terrain will be, as well as the nature of the enemy. The wisdom of a balanced force, just like a balanced stock portfolio, is manifest. The advocacy twenty years ago of Generals _ and _ to establish a mounted infantry force training center at 29 Palms in the mid-80s deserves applause. Over the next decade, a review of the usual suspects for conflict – North Korea or Iran – suggests building upon the regimental combat team. Key to Maneuver Warfare is speed, agility and ruthlessness to shatter the enemy’s cohesion, even while leaving most of his forces physically intact. The infantry’s instinct to close with and destroy the enemy at the point of attack must remain at the forefront of training.

The tactic needing most refinement is the proper alignment of the firepower of the tank and amtrac with the maneuver and closure of the infantry. The firepower provided by a section of AAVs with the UGWS has brought a great leap forward for mechanized operations; more effort is needed to ‘meld’ the infantry/AAV team in TTPs. Also, organizing ‘bite-sized’ packages which can be refueled and resupplied on the move needs development. The spongy ground between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers severely restricted off-road maneuver and so the three RCTs were strung out along two highways. If a battalion dropped its supply train to attack with only one or two companies, it risked the vehicles left behind becoming ensnarled in gigantic traffic jams.

To ‘repackage’ battalions so that they can be resupplied and fight in smaller, self-contained packages is a daunting challenge. But it is also an opportunity. Every Marine is a rifleman and wants to be part of the action when deployed on an expedition. In Iraqi Freedom, supply was more than fifty percent of the challenge and everyone in a convoy was equal, and equally needed. This is the model for the future battlefields and it means that the logisticians should have a center seat in the design of operational plans and force packages.

Overall, Iraqi Freedom indicated that the Marines have the proper balance for the next ten years and that the doctrine of Maneuver Warfare is the proper framework for preparing for the next war.

Joint Implications. At the joint level, four issues require addressal.

First, disturbing to all Marines in Iraqi Freedom was the incaution of Iraqi civilian drivers, who persisted in driving during combat conditions. Due to the constant, but statistically improbable threat of a suicide car bomber, this resulted in tragic casualties. The R & D community should work hard to develop a non-lethal means of signaling to, and perhaps startling civilian drivers so they will not persist in driving into life-threatening situations.

Second, combat initiatives below company and battalion were few in this war, due to the open terrain. The battalion and company commander could see his subordinates and independent patrolling was scant, so the small unit leaders were usually operating under the command of the company commanders and above. At the same time, during Iraqi Freedom, the Special Operations Command performed credibly in separate task forces and worked well with everybody, albeit at a measured pace. On the other hand, Force Recon appears not to have been employed for the more risky and independent missions for which they trained for so many years. On balance, the trends indicate that while Marine doctrine encourages initiative at the lower levels, it appears that SOCOM will become the actual repository of small unit operations. SOCOM is the first Congressionally-legislated military organization to take jointness to its logical conclusion and remove the services from the operating forces. In Iraqi Freedom, there were fourteen thousand SOC troops deployed. Such a large number suggests that units like Force Recon will migrate to SOC for missions such as training against terrorists in the Philippines or sending teams into the mountains of Afghanistan.

Although the history of the Corps has been a history of small unit independent leaders -the Smedley Butlers and Edwin O’Bannons – in the future such small unit actions may be done by the joint special operations command. The possibility is that the niche of the future Marine Corps will be in expeditions at the battalion, regiment and division level, This is not an altogether salutary trend. As SOC becomes the tip of the spear, many young men attracted to the Marine Corps will contemplate an alternative service as the stepping stone into SOC, with institutional loyalty and career path determined by that organization and not by the parent service.

Third, after the war there was a period of considerable turbulence in adjusting to a peacekeeping force. It is clearly in our interest to have a written, joint doctrine for actions after a war. This is ticklish to delineate, because the American casualties since May have come in the so-called ‘Sunni triangle’. Hence it is hard to hammer out a joint doctrine for peacekeeping when the on-the-ground experiences have differed dramatically based upon different demographics, different operational philosophies and different tactics. That said, it is hard to argue with success and the decentralized, constant patrolling and presence approach of the MEF in the Shiite south deserves being chronicled and studied for application elsewhere.

Lastly, from Iraqi Freedom it is manifest that there is not a joint concept for seizing a city. Baghdad was not taken in a seriously contested fight. Before that city fell, the concept of the Army was to encircle and to raid, attacking in and out with columns of tanks. This was a tactic of attrition based on superior firepower. The Marine concept was to seize and hold, employing armor protected by dismounted infantry. The stark contrast in the two approaches was in part driven by the difference in force structure, the Army being mainly armor and vehicular-mounted and the Marines with proportionately many more dismounted infantry. The British chose yet a third approach at Basra, where they surrounded and wore down the defenders by psychological pressure as well as by firepower. There was no reconciliation among these three strategies before or after Iraqi Freedom. This is a serious subject which requires joint addressal.

Conclusion. Iraqi Freedom was a remarkable military victory. What stood out were the speed and the logistics movement. Potential adversaries of America took note and deterrence was enhanced. The Marines demonstrated innovation in planning and tenacity in execution, completing a campaign which will be studied for years to come. Maneuver Warfare moved from being a theoretical doctrine to a real battlefield, where it proved itself.

MajGen Ray L. Smith, USMC (ret.) is one of the most decorated Marines since World War II and commanded infantry units at all levels. F.J. Bing West, a former Marine and former Assistant Secretary of Defense, is author of The Village and The Pepperdogs. Their book, The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division, is a first-hand account of the tactics and strategy of the war.

The Last US Field Commander in Afghanistan


The Last Field Commander
Can General John Allen save Afghanistan? Wrong question

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.

On our flight to Helmand, he explains to me what he calls the “force vectors” determining success or failure. One vector is time. President Obama has pledged to withdraw U.S. troops from combat by 2014. By this year’s end, U.S. troop strength will drop from roughly 100,000 to 70,000.

A second vector is Afghanistan’s political path. Afghan officials are bargaining tenaciously over the terms of the Strategic Partnership Agreement that will govern American military activities after 2014. The SPA will be critical in persuading NATO and other countries to pledge continued support.

The Pakistani sanctuary is the third vector. Pakistan supports terrorists in a proxy war in order to control the eventual political outcome in Afghanistan. Conceding a sanctuary to insurgents has historically imperiled any beleaguered government.

The fourth vector is instilling confidence in the Afghan army. Unless Afghan security forces can stand up to the Taliban, chaos and civil war are inevitable.

“My focus,” Allen says, “is transitioning Afghan forces into the lead on the battlefield.”

The scale of his task can be illustrated with one statistic: In August, just 72 of 211 Afghan battalions were rated as effective without the assistance of coalition forces. With the number of coalition troops shrinking, Allen is racing against the clock.

Allen is the eleventh general to command the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). His visit to the small British base in Helmand Province is part of his twice-weekly “battlefield circulation.” When the British officers say they are recruiting villagers as auxiliary police, Allen nods in approval.

“Good,” he says. “The more tribes that commit, the better.”

Allen next meets with the district police chief, who asks for more cops. Allen points out that regular policemen cost $30,000 a year, compared with $8,000 for a village auxiliary.

“The village men,” he says, “are your additional police.”

After the meeting with the district elders, Allen bounds off to talk with the troops of the British 45th Commando. After shucking helmet, armor, and aides, he wanders around the parapets chatting with lean, sunburned youths in T-shirts. He congratulates them on their progress and listens to their war stories. For a few minutes, he isn’t the four-star who confers with ambassadors; he is back among troops.

“I learn something every time I visit a line unit,” he says. “But truth be told, visiting the troops in the field recharges my batteries.”

Reserved among diplomats and distant with journalists, Allen is most comfortable among soldiers. He has twice won Marine Corps awards for leadership and has been named Instructor of the Year at the Naval Academy.

His choice of the military as a career began with a teacher. As a sophomore at the prestigious Flint Hill School in northern Virginia, he fell under the tutelage of a retired British Marine with a degree from Oxford who had fought in Malaya during World War II and spent much of the war in a Japanese POW camp on the River Kwai. Allen graduated with a keen appreciation of literature and an abiding respect for proper form and discipline. His father had won a battlefield commission on board the destroyer U.S.S. Woolsey by climbing the ship’s mast to adjust naval gunfire in a duel with a German tank racing along the sands of the Anzio beachhead in 1944. Instead of Princeton, John Allen chose to attend the Naval Academy. By his junior year, he had decided to be a Marine infantryman rather than a Navy officer.

“The art of warfare fascinated me,” he says. “And the Marine grunt was always in the thick of it.”

His career highlights include command of a rifle platoon, a weapons platoon, one rifle company, and then another, followed by command of a battalion and appointment as commandant of midshipmen at the Naval Academy and then commanding general of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Iraq. Asked which of his 21 command and staff assignments in 35 years he remembers most fondly, he is quick to answer: “Lima Company, 4th Marines. My wife Kathy and I knew every one of our Marines, their wives and kids. Our two girls were young, and everyone worked together and took care of each other. Once you’re promoted above captain, you lose that close connection.”

Beginning in 2008, he worked as General David Petraeus’s deputy at Central Command. The two shared an intellectual, even-keeled approach. Shunning confrontations and displays of anger, both men quietly manipulated the bureaucracies to reassign those who performed poorly. When Petraeus took command in Afghanistan in 2010, Allen remained as the deputy in Tampa. After Petraeus returned to Washington in mid-2011 as director of the CIA, Allen took over in Afghanistan.

At the same time, President Obama downgraded the mission of long-term nation building. Instead, he said, “it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” The new, more modest goal in Afghanistan was to prevent the reemergence of a safe haven for Islamist terrorists. Allen was charged with transitioning Afghan forces into the lead, and the American military role would change from combat to support by 2014.

General John R. Allen and a villager in Afghanistan
Bing West

“Afghans must see their army as the symbol of national unity, holding the country together,” he says.

Allen works 100-hour weeks, with a third of the time spent on the battlefields and another third in discussions with his staff in his small operations center. He is focused on the battlefield and on the performance of the Afghan army and police. An executive manages what he measures, and over the course of his career, Allen has acquired a reputation for poring over reports at ungodly hours.

At his bedside he keeps biographies of military commanders, including an account of how British field marshal William Slim turned defeat into victory over Japanese forces in Burma and India in World War II. He hoards eight hours a week for personal study time.

Allen’s initial directive to his forces set forth what he wanted done, but not how to do it. Accelerate the fielding of the Afghan forces, he wrote, and review your procedures to adapt as a “learning organization.” Retired colonel Mike Killion, who served with Allen on several tours, comments on his leadership style: “John Allen is the master of what I call progressive elaboration. He establishes a framework and then solicits good ideas. When a better idea comes along, he’ll grab it and refine his framework. He doesn’t get stuck due to pride of ownership.”

In Afghanistan, Allen needed all the bright ideas he could grab. Although the northern and western parts of the country were relatively stable, insurgents had besieged the eastern and southern areas, comprising 260,000 square kilometers and 20 million people. At first, the Afghans could do little to defend themselves. For comparison, consider that Iraq — a country with the same population but one-third smaller in size — had 800,000 men under arms. Afghanistan had fewer than 400,000, and most recruits had to be taught to read as well as to shoot. The cost for that force, including pay, equipment, and maintenance, was estimated at $6 billion to $10 billion per year.

Quantity is one thing; fighting quality is quite another. To accelerate the development of the Afghan army, the coalition had “partnered” Afghan and American forces in the field. The intent was to train by example. A similar technique had worked in Iraq — with two key differences: First, the Iraqi army was easier to reconstitute, since Iraq had an educated middle class. Second, the Sunni tribes in Iraq turned against al-Qaeda.

Allen played a key role in that shift. While serving in 2007 in Anbar Province, then–Brigadier General Allen shuttled to Jordan to negotiate with pro-insurgent sheiks. He provided clandestine airlift, medical treatment, and bodyguards to entice them to join the Sunni tribal movement known as the Anbar Awakening.

“Al-Qaeda couldn’t conquer or control the tribes,” he told me at the time, “once they banded together.”

In Afghanistan, Allen was enthusiastic about expanding the auxiliary local police program from 44 Pashtun villages to 100. However, it was the surge of American troops, not the performance of Afghan forces, that stopped the momentum of the Taliban in 2011. Allen’s field army of coalition forces consists of roughly 55 units the size of a battalion (800 to 1,000 troops). Each controls a “battle space” of 100 to 500 square kilometers. Allen has to withdraw a third of the U.S. force — 33,000 of the 100,000 Americans — before September of 2012. No matter how he shuffles the remaining units, the diminished coalition force will not be able to control all key areas. Allen is quietly assigning areas to Afghan control.

Allen is currently reading a biography of General Ulysses S. Grant, who in 1864 took command of an Army of the Potomac that had been thrashed by General Robert E. Lee. The Army had lost heart. Relying upon his larger numbers, Grant doggedly attacked, and the spirit of offense gradually infused the Union soldiers with confidence.

It was no accident that Allen began his first letter to the troops in the style of Grant, with the exhortation, in bold type, to “relentlessly pressure the enemy.” He recognized that the Afghan security forces have similar advantages of numbers and resources over the Taliban. But Allen faces a problem that Grant never did: He cannot change his field commanders who are Afghans. His basic challenge is to get Afghan forces to take ownership of their fight: “I’m not waiting until we’re out of combat to get them in,” he says.

Faced with a comparable problem in 1971, President Richard Nixon pressed his commander in Saigon, General Creighton Abrams, to send the South Vietnamese army into combat on its own, without American advisers. The ensuing battle against seven North Vietnamese divisions in the jungles of Laos, called Lam Son 719, ended disastrously.

Allen intended to go the other way: Instead of reducing advisers, he wanted to add more of them. While the Afghan forces did the shooting, the advisers provided communications, fire support, and medical evacuation.

“They can’t think we’re abandoning them,” Allen says. “They must believe they don’t need us to fight for them any longer.”

Historically, advisory missions have gotten too little attention from the American military establishment. Commanding American forces has been the preferred career path for recognition and promotion. To fill the advisory gap, in the early 1960s the U.S. Army began organizing the Special Forces to train foreign armies. Each Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha, or ODA, team comprised a dozen Green Berets skilled in tactics, communications, and medical and fire support. But there weren’t enough of them in Afghanistan. About half of the 112 ODAs serving there were used for counterterrorism raids.

More than 400 Afghan-army battalions, police precincts, and district auxiliary-police units needed adviser teams. ODA teams weren’t nearly enough. American battalions were supplying the manpower for the adviser slots, but those battalions were withdrawing, and many thousands of advisers were required. To address this shortage, Allen solicited unconventional alternatives.

“I don’t have the luxury to think in traditional terms,” he says.

With Allen’s encouragement, the Special Forces are working together with U.S. conventional units to provide sufficient advisers for the village auxiliary-police program. Allen believes it will require several such mix-and-match task organizations to flesh out an adviser corps numbering in the thousands for at least the next few years.

Some combat data suggest that, with help from advisers, the Afghan army can hold its own. This can be seen by looking at the units it will be relieving. While ISAF does not emphasize counts of enemy casualties, because they tend to be inaccurate and do not predict success in war, casualties do reflect the intensity of battle. At the end of August, the coalition’s Special Operations Forces and helicopter gunships accounted for an estimated 2,500 Taliban fatalities, while the 55 conventional battalions, which will be replaced by Afghans, accounted for another 1,600. Put another way, 10 percent of the force — SOF and gunships — contributed 60 percent of the lethality.

On average, each conventional battalion accounted for one Taliban fatality each week. Within that average, though, lies considerable variation: Some battalions engaged in frequent firefights, while others engaged in none. Overall, combat was light. Most battalions conducted routine police patrols that could be accomplished with equal effectiveness by Afghan soldiers — if led by Afghan officers of average competence.

Anecdotes from the front lines, however, were disturbing. On NPR, for instance, two company commanders fresh from the battlefield said that the same small minority of Afghan soldiers always patrolled alongside American soldiers, while the great majority of the Afghan soldiers remained inside the base. These commanders were convinced that Afghan battalions would cut deals with insurgents once the U.S. units withdrew.

If American battalions do pull out without injecting any compensating U.S. force, the Afghan forces will most likely lose heart and fall apart. The insertion of advisers to fill this role is the heart of Allen’s transition strategy.

“Having advisers outside the wire — in the fight — is not optional,” he says. “It is required.”

The performance of the Afghan army on its own remains unpredictable, because it hasn’t yet been tested. Afghanistan is not large-scale combat; it’s a war of intimidation — brief fights and bombings intended to instill fear and cause the Afghan troops to pull back. Preventing that by building an adviser corps, all while withdrawing the conventional battalions, will be the most significant organizational change in the ten-year war.

Last winter and again this spring, I embedded with a Marine platoon in Helmand Province. The grunts slept in rooms hacked out of a mud-walled farmhouse surrounded by corn and poppy fields. Every day we went out on patrol. Every day someone shot to kill a Marine, and the Marines shot back to kill him. Afghan soldiers took part in every patrol.

I asked the platoon to rate the fighting skills of the Afghan soldiers against the Taliban. Twenty-one Marines said the Afghan soldiers and the Taliban were about equal, seven said the Afghan soldiers were better, and 17 said the Taliban were better. In essence, the platoon believed Afghan soldiers could hold their own, assuming a modicum of leadership.

Whether the grunts of one nation can transfer their fighting spirit to the army of another, and whether advisers can make a critical difference, is an open question. After the South Vietnamese army lost several battles in 1972, General Abrams, according to the historian Lewis Sorley, told his staff, “General Vien was asking me about some equipment. . . . I said, ‘Equipment is not what you need. You need men that will fight. And you need officers that will fight, and will lead the men.’”

The Afghan army has two years to pull its act together and save the nation. Without a strong army, Afghanistan will degenerate into civil war. With a strong army, Afghanistan can deny safe havens to terrorists and preserve the nation’s fragile unity.

The complexity of Allen’s task — standing up a competent Afghan security force as the coalition forces leave — is staggering. At a time when the murders of American soldiers by Afghan soldiers have eroded mutual trust as well as U.S. public support, the coalition strategy requires the continued deployment of small advisory teams vulnerable to such tactics. The massacre of Afghan civilians by an American soldier will further inflame tensions. And although Allen and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have skillfully managed America’s relationship with President Karzai, the Afghan government has yet to sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement that will extend a substantial U.S. military presence and financial commitment beyond 2014.

“This is the eleventh hour,” Allen says, “and I have a solemn obligation to get this job done with whatever resources I have, or inform the commander-in-chief of recommended adjustments.”

Sorley begins his biography of Abrams with the quote, “He deserves a better war.” Like Abrams, Allen conveys positive leadership and thoughtful determination. Also like Abrams, he understands that in the end, no American general controls the final outcome. America and NATO cannot be expected to fight with more resolve for the freedom of Afghans than do the Afghans themselves.

Mr. West is a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine who travels frequently to Afghanistan to report from the front lines.