WASHINGTON – The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan is being transferred and another Marine general will take over the war effort early next year as the United States and its allies shrink their combat role against the still-potent insurgency.
The White House plans to nominate Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, to replace Gen. John Allen, who has directed U.S. and other foreign forces in Afghanistan since mid-2011, officials said.
Although Allen is not being forced out, “the president wants somebody who can take a fresh look at the effort in Afghanistan and isn’t an architect of the current strategy,” said David Barno, a retired Army general who headed the war in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and now is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
The proposed change in command comes at a perilous time in the decade-old war as well as in the heat of a U.S. presidential campaign.
The last of the 30,000 additional troops sent by President Obama in 2009 as part of a so-called surge departed Afghanistan this month, and the rest of the 68,000 U.S. troops are supposed to withdraw along with other allied troops by the end of 2014.
But last month still saw nearly 3,000 insurgent attacks. That is down from about 4,000 a month at its worst in 2010, but still up from about 2,000 a month the summer after Obama took office, according to statistics released this week by the International Security and Assistance Force in Kabul.
Allen’s expected departure in January will give him only a year and a half in Afghanistan, a relatively short tenure for a senior combat commander. Dunford has never served in Afghanistan.
There are signs that the strain of overseeing the war has worn on the usually taciturn Allen, who in recent days has voiced frustration about the lethal “insider” attacks by Afghan soldiers and police that have killed 51 U.S. and coalition troops this year.
“I’m mad as hell about them, to be honest with you,” he said, in an interview with “60 Minutes” scheduled to be broadcast Sunday. “It reverberates everywhere across the United States. You know, we’re willing to sacrifice a lot for this campaign, but we’re not willing to be murdered for it.”
Allen will be nominated to become Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, which, if confirmed by the Senate, would make him senior military officer for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the U.S. officials said.
Allen is exiting because the White House decided his experience at managing NATO’s role in the war made him the best choice available to lead the alliance, a job that is technically a promotion, the officials said.
Allen conceded this week in an interview conducted and distributed by the Pentagon that the surge of insider killings have created “mistrust,” and deepened concerns among NATO allies about keeping their troops in Afghanistan through 2014, as the alliance has agreed.
“They didn’t send their troops here to experience this,” Allen said. “They didn’t send their troops here to be killed.”
He also said the insider attacks could “cause us to change the way” the U.S. military and its allies train and advise Afghan army and police units. Allen temporarily suspended joint operations with Afghan forces, though cooperation now has resumed, officials said.
Privately, some U.S. military officers warn that if Afghan security forces continue to turn on Western troops, rather than fight the Taliban insurgents, it may prompt the White House to speed up the pace of U.S. withdrawals next year, especially if President Obama is reelected.
Allen is in talks with the administration on how quickly to bring out the remaining troops and how many will stay on as advisers and trainers after 2014. Military commanders may seek to keep as many as 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but the White House has yet to approve any such deployment.
With the White House focused on the presidential race, senior Pentagon officials are playing down the setbacks and questions about whether the withdrawal strategy developed by Allen and the White House remains workable.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters this week that the insider killings are a desperation tactic by the Taliban, though until recently he and others said most of the attacks were carried out by disgruntled individuals, not by insurgents.
“It is their effort to try to create the kind of high-profile attacks that, while they don’t gain them anything, basically try to break our will,” Panetta said. “That’s what this is about. And I think when an enemy reaches that point it’s near the end of their effort to really fully fight back.”
Some Pentagon officers say Dunford’s lack of experience in Afghanistan will not be a significant handicap. As the Pentagon winds down its military presence, the main requirement will be a commander who can manage the logistics of withdrawal and deal with the White House and Afghan officials, they argued.
Despite the declining support in Washington and elsewhere for the war, colleagues say Dunford is up to the job. He commanded the 5th Marine regiment during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, earning plaudits for his aggressive push north from Kuwait to Baghdad.
“He’s a leader who breeds confidence and he can orchestrate large organizations to carry forward,” said a senior U.S. officer who has worked closely with Dunford.
Barno, the former war commander, called this week for cutting U.S. combat forces to about 35,000 by next summer, far faster than Allen’s strategy would suggest.
Barno said the Pentagon should speed up the turnover of security responsibility to Afghan forces, and halt most joint operations. He urged commanders to abandon Allen’s plan for small teams of U.S. advisers to work with Afghan units, helping them call in airstrikes, plan operations, and arrange for casualty evacuations.
“We’ve done what we set out to do” by killing Osama bin Laden and degrading the Taliban’s strength, Barno said in a telephone interview. “The task now is to limit U.S. exposure in the months and years ahead, and get the Afghans into the fight.”
Noting that the Afghan army is now close to 352,000 soldiers, he said, “One would think with a force that size they could hold off the Taliban.”