At 1:45 a.m. Eastern time today, the Pentagon sent out a statement from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announcing that Gen. John Allen, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, was under investigation for exchanging emails with the woman allegedly harassed by Gen. David Petraeus’ mistress.
And another scandal began in the short-lived string of Afghanistan tenures under this commander in chief.
Panetta said the matter was referred to his department on Sunday, two days after Petraeus’ resignation as CIA director was announced, and handed over to the Pentagon’s inspector general.
“While the matter is under investigation and before the facts are determined, General Allen will remain Commander of ISAF. His leadership has been instrumental in achieving the significant progress that ISAF, working alongside our Afghan partners, has made in bringing greater security to the Afghan people and in ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists. He is entitled to due process in this matter,” Panetta said.
“In the meantime, I have asked the President – and the President has agreed – to put his nomination on hold until the relevant facts are determined,” the secretary added.
Allen was already scheduled for a February transition to be Commander of United States European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced in a joint statement that this confirmation hearing “has been postponed until a later date” with a change of command in Europe expected “no earlier than March.”
The European Command, first held by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, is not an easy spot to fill, particularly with a dwindling pool of four-star generals seen as senior enough for the position. The current commander in Europe, Adm. James Stavridis, was just cleared in a financial investigation that still may have killed his chances to become chief of naval operations.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, was nominated by President Obama to succeed Allen in Afghanistan. Panetta asked that this nomination be acted upon in the Senate “promptly”; the Senate Armed Services Committee is holding his hearing Thursday, when the Hill will be largely engulfed by a trio of Benghazi hearings.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters today that Obama put a hold on Allen’s nomination to the European post.
“I can tell you that the president thinks very highly of General Allen and his service to his country, as well as the job he has done in Afghanistan,” Carney said. “…He has faith in General Allen, believes he’s doing and has done an excellent job at ISAF, and I would refer you to the Pentagon for the process under way with regard to General Allen.”
If Allen is forced out, though, he will be the fourth commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to fall to a career-ending scandal or outright ouster during Obama’s administration.
It’s an inglorious record for a president keen on quickly exiting Afghanistan and taking credit for ending the war begun there after the 9/11 attacks by President George W. Bush.
In a December 2009 address, Obama claimed progress in turning around a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and announced an 18-month troop surge. “We will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future,” Obama vowed.
The following year, U.S. casualties in Afghanistan jumped to the highest point since the beginning of the war. Obama campaigned for re-election on the withdrawal from Iraq and planned pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
In a late September interview, Allen told 60 Minutes he was “mad as hell” about the increase in attacks by coalition-trained Afghan soldiers on coalition forces.
“We’re gonna get after this. It reverberates everywhere, across the United States,” Allen said. “You know, we’re willing to sacrifice a lot for this campaign, but we’re not willing to be murdered for it.”
Allen suspended training — a cornerstone of the administration’s exit strategy — twice because of the spike in insider attacks.
“The nature of this campaign is not ultimately for us to defeat the Taliban,” Allen told NBC the same week. “The nature of this campaign is for us to give the Afghan national security forces the wherewithal ultimately to create security in this country so that governance can take root, rule of law can be embraced, and economic development and opportunity can move forward.”
The general was to give recommendations to the president before the end of the year on the status of U.S. operations and whether they are on pace with the administration’s withdrawal timetable.
“I’ll evaluate the nature of the insurgency. I’ll evaluate the progress that we have made with the Afghan national security forces. We’ll look at the operational environment we think we’ll — we’ll face in 2013. And the combination of all of those will permit me to make a recommendation,” Allen told NBC, adding that he was working “around the clock” to stem Taliban infiltration in the Afghan National Security Forces. “…We really need to look at how far the Afghans have come this year.”
Allen is now being investigated for thousands of alleged “inappropriate communications” with Jill Kelley, a married Tampa socialite and friend of David and Holly Petraeus. Paula Broadwell, Petraeus’ biographer with whom the CIA director was having an affair, sent the allegedly threatening emails to Kelley that sparked the investigation and Petraeus’ eventual resignation.
The Allen-Kelley emails have been described to various outlets today as flirty rather than sexual — and Allen has denied having an extramarital affair — but the intercession of the inspector general suggests that Allen is on the hook for more than calling CENTCOM’s “unpaid social liaison” a “sweetheart.”
The Allen case also provided handy penance for an administration coming under sharp bipartisan criticism for concealing the Petraeus investigation from intelligence committee leaders for months: Capital Hill was promptly informed about the Allen email probe.
On the same day that the investigation was announced, though, support began lining up in Allen’s corner.
“Bill Kristol says charges against Gen. Allen are a ‘smear.’ He’s right. No evidence, all anonymous talk about emails & alleged flirtation,” tweeted Brit Hume.
Perhaps the early support comes in part from knowledge about the job security rate for Obama’s previous commanders in Afghanistan.
Gen. David McKiernan, who began commanding forces in Afghanistan in June 2008, was forced out by Obama a year before his term was up. The reason given for McKiernan’s requested resignation was the new president’s desire to switch to a “counterinsurgency” strategy instead of conventional warfare. McKiernan retired after this rare ouster of a wartime commander.
The next guy, Gen. Stan McChrystal, lasted only a year as well. The leader of the troop surge stayed from June 2009 to June 2010, when he was forced to resign after members of his staff made disparaging comments about Obama and other administration officials in a Rolling Stone article (remember “Bite Me” Biden?). The magazine now touts its archive story as the profile “that changed history.”
Next was Petraeus, who was asked to be demoted as head of U.S. Central Command to take over for McChrystal. Petraeus assumed leadership in Afghanistan in July 2010, but a year later was plucked out of the country to become CIA director. There he would resign after his extramarital affair was exposed. Petraeus traveled to Libya shortly before the election to conduct his own investigation into the Benghazi attacks; now the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee can’t get access to the report. His testimony Thursday before the Senate and House intelligence panels was also called off.
And now, Allen’s nomination as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander has been put on hold.