National Security

The Air Up There

How Sec. Michael Donley sees sequestration and the future of aerial warfare.

Foreign Policy sat down on Sept. 12 with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, who took office four years ago after his predecessor, Michael Wynne, was fired over the service's mishandling of nuclear weapons. Donley took over an Air Force that then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates had accused of mismanaging the way it bought weapons and of not providing enough intelligence planes to the counterinsurgency fights in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the years since, the United States military has pulled out of Iraq, is preparing to leave Afghanistan, and will slash defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade. Meanwhile, Pentagon planners are worried about high-end weapons, seemingly designed to keep U.S. forces at bay, that are being fielded by nations such as Iran and China. Donley is now in charge of a service that is revamping itself to face the challenges of 21st century warfare -- and budget reductions.

In fact, one of the biggest short-term challenges is the uncertainty of whether the service will have the money to buy and operate 1,763 stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 100 or so new stealth bombers, and 179 new KC-46 tankers that it had planned to purchase, should U.S. lawmakers fail to reach a deal on deficit reduction in time to thwart further massive cuts in defense spending that are scheduled for January. Donley warned that the across-the-board cuts to defense under a process known as sequestration will be catastrophic: "It is not possible to take that much money out of the defense program and not have an impact on units, on states, on businesses, on communities -- the dollars will come out somewhere."

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation, in which Donley offers his thoughts on sequestration, the Air Force's plans to buy new weapons, the shift to Asia, and the meaning of Air-Sea Battle.

FP: You've been in office for four years, what are your top priorities for the rest of your time as secretary?

MD: Obviously we're focusing on making sure we address all the issues we have that were of concern regarding the nuclear enterprise, and we're continuing to focus on that work, which is very much a zero-defect environment, so we always have an eye on that. Certainly partnering with the other services and coalition partners in today's fight remains a very, very high priority for us. Air Force capabilities remain very much in demand by combatant commanders, especially in the [Central Command area of responsibility] and attendant areas. Modernizing our inventories and making sure our significant modernization programs remain on track also is a priority for us.

Also, developing airmen; we rely on an experienced, highly trained cadre of airmen to do what we do and making sure that their requirements, their needs with respect to training, readiness funding, and support for their families are also attended to.

Also, continuing to improve our acquisition process. Those five are things we continue to work on.

In the near term, in terms of how we package these issues in the context of the strategic and budgetary constraints we outlined at the end of last year, and as we made strategic decisions going into [fiscal year 2013] informed by the Budget Control Act and the new strategic guidance that we got, if you sort of package up our issues in the context of those two major pieces, [the priority is] really focusing on our strategic choices that we made, which were to be a little bit smaller, to trade size for quality, but to be a ready Air Force that will continue to improve in capability over time. We will leave room even in a constrained budget environment for continued modernization of the Air Force, making sure that even though we're smaller going forward, we continue to get better and that we're always ready for whatever contingencies are right out in front of us.

I think the overarching challenge right now is to sustain those strategic priorities in the context of a lot of budget uncertainty going forward with the conclusion of [fiscal year 2013], the preparation of fiscal year ‘14, and the sequester overhanging all of that.

FP: Are you moving ahead as normal with your planning for FY-14 and beyond?

MD: The [Department of Defense] is reviewing the services' [five year funding plans -- known as POMS -- for fiscal year  2014] but there's a great deal of uncertainty because the Congress has not resolved the sequester problem and all of that overhangs DoD's planning right now.

FP: But you're not officially planning for sequestration?

MDNo, but the closer we get [to the January 2013 deadline for Congress to reach deal on national deficit reduction] the more interested we get in understanding the details and the potential impacts not just to the Air Force but to the rest of the department, and they're significant. We need and expect the Congress to address this overhanging challenge of sequester before the end of this year.  

FP: I've heard you say time and again that sequestration would be catastrophic for the Air Force.

MD: It would be for all the services including the Air Force; it would have an impact of at least 8 to 10 percent in most of our accounts, in some cases a little bit more, [and offer] very little flexibility in how it's implemented. It would affect the readiness of the Air Force, the accounts that support our operations and maintenance, potentially flying hours, maintenance of aircraft, civilian personnel. On modernization programs once again, [there would be] very little flexibility on how it would be implemented. Each program, project, activity would be decremented and this is extremely disruptive to existing contracts and to program management and execution. It's very much a negative and disruptive process if it's implemented.

FP: What are the long-term security challenges that you're trying to position the Air Force to meet?

MD: I put them into two contexts. First is the geostrategic context -- the guidance we received from the president and the secretary of defense to put additional focus on the Asia-Pacific region -- but we're doing that at a time when the Centcom [Central Command] area is still very much in demand. Even though we're out of Iraq and we have a plan to draw down in Afghanistan, our experience is that those draw-downs often involve a continued requirement for Air Force resources. Often the combatant commander, as the ground combat force footprint shrinks and becomes thinner in a geographic area, wants more or continuing levels of overhead presence from airpower resources, they want the continuing ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] availability, if not a bit more to cover uncovered areas on the ground.

In addition, we have the overhanging issues in the Centcom [area of responsibility] of Iran and how the U.S. and its partners in this region will respond to the instabilities and potential threats from the Iranian government, and then also, the instability in Syria and the migration of al Qaeda and its affiliates, if you will, from contested areas that we've been fighting them in the Af-Pak region to places like Yemen. Those are the challenges I think, in geostrategic terms; to put a little focus on the Asia-Pacific region, but as we do that we're still quite busy in the Centcom area.

FP: Can you elaborate on the Air Force's role in the shift to Asia?

MD: Of our overseas permanently based forces, about 60 percent of that is already in the Pacific for the Air Force. The region really highlights the importance of range and speed and the attributes of airpower, given the vast distances that are involved. It's for this and other reasons that the Air Force and the Navy have collaborative approaches, through initiatives like Air-Sea Battle, to work issues of common interest and concern. It applies to other regions as well, but especially in the Pacific there's a great deal of synergy between air and maritime needs and interests. In addition, some of our high-end capabilities [are in the Pacific]. About 60 percent of our non-training F-22s are positioned toward the Pacific theater, and certainly we have new capabilities coming on board that will be applicable to the region. And different from a COIN [counterinsurgency] environment, they will be more applicable to potential higher-end threats that we face, not just in the Pacific but elsewhere. Probably the first overseas basing of the F-35 will occur in the Asia-Pacific region; obviously the new tanker will be useful in that region; the long-range strike bomber, when it comes on board, will be obviously applicable to this region where you're working long distances.

FP: How is the F-35A -- the Air Force's version of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- coming along?

MD: F-35 is the department's largest acquisition program ever; it's actually largest Air Force acquisition. It accounts for 15 percent of our total [modernization] investment, so it's a significant program. It's obviously a joint program for Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps. It's an important international program already and of growing importance as we have a number of partners involved in this work, so it's a must-succeed program; it's going to be a very capable platform. We continue to work through the concurrency issues. ["Concurrency" refers to efforts to simultaneously test and field an airplane. Aircraft are usually thoroughly tested before production and delivery.] And some of that testing and working kinks out is taking a little bit longer than we would like, but we're working through that. We already have 22 aircraft delivered, 13 in the test program, nine aircraft have been delivered to Eglin Air Force Base, which is the first training site. In the conventional Air Force version, we have 1,000 sorties under our belt in the test program and 2,000 flight hours. We are undertaking what's called an operational utility evaluation, which is a brief but independent assessment of where we stand to help inform certification that we're ready for training. So we're getting close to the point where we will begin F-35 training at Eglin. We're not quite there but we're working up to that, and we've been flying the F-35 at Eglin for the past several of months. Again, there are remaining technical issues to be resolved -- it's a highly concurrent program -- and some producability issues. We'd like to get the costs down even as we need to resolve some of the technical issues. But at the same time [the program is] delivering aircraft and we're not far away from beginning training, I hope.

FP: do you have an estimate for when F-35 flight training will begin?

MD: No. Again, we're taking a conservative approach to it but slowly building up the hours, the experience with the aircraft . . . we're working up to it. [The start of training] will be the next important milestone.

In addition, we're making decisions on where the F-35 is going to be based. We're putting more focus on maintenance and sustainability, the infrastructure that will support F-35 operations. The program is turning in many respects from just an acquisition program into a program that is being fielded, and we're addressing the broader issues of sustainment and supportability going forward. So the Air Force is quite active right now in working all of those issues, apart from the program office which is focused on building airplanes and working through the test program.   

FP: How is the family of next-generation, long-range strike systems, particularly the new bomber, coming along?

MD: It's progressing as planned. I can't talk about it in detail but it's, again, a very important capability for the Air Force. I think the strategic review from last winter demonstrated the importance of long-range strike and ended up reinforcing the capabilities that long-range strike brings to the combatant commander -- the range, the payload, the flexibility. It's very much needed in the context of modernizing the long-range strike fleet because obviously the B-2s are 20-plus years old, they're the newest of the bombers, and they're the only stealthy capability in the existing fleet. Replacing the B-1s, replacing the B-52s is going to take some time, but it's very much necessary to meet the modern threats that are out there. The bomber program is intended to get after that and to start delivering capability in the mid ‘20s. I think we've benefitted from the B-2 and other related programs that are underway. Our focus on this program is to make sure that it is undertaken with cost in mind so that we can build them in numbers. Between 80 and 100 is the target number for procurement, and it's important to maintain cost control in the program, as [then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates] highlighted for us as he put together the framework for governance of this program just prior to his departure. I think the program is on track and I think we have the right sight picture of cost-consciousness, not trying to put too much capability into a single airframe but taking advantage of the operational flexibility that goes with [having the bomber operate as part of] a family of systems that involves not just the bomber but recognizes the importance of communications systems, electronic warfare, ISR, and weaponeering that is connected not just to one platform but is connected to a variety of systems with which the bomber will interact.

FP: Are those joint systems?

MD: There's joint work in that mix.

FP: There's still a lot of confusion out there regarding Air-Sea Battle; what is it?

MDIt's an organizing concept, if you will, for how to marry air and maritime power in a way that helps us address contested environments where threat capabilities have grown in a fashion that can endanger or threaten global commons. I think it just brings into sharper focus, at the operational level, those [areas] in which the Navy and the Air Force have common issues -- airspace management, for example, missile defense kind of issues, ISR issues, common weapons that the Air Force and the Navy have developed for many years, electronic warfare -- all these areas that are pertinent to how one operates in a contested environment are very pertinent to Air Force-Navy cooperation to our joint development of not only technologies but operational concepts which develop synergies between the air and maritime domains.

[Air Sea battle is] all about sort of identifying opportunities for collaboration in that world and to get the best thinking on both sides of this equation.

FP: Can you elaborate on the Air Force-specific challenges that remain in the Middle East?

MD: I remind folks that of the nearly 30,000 or so airmen in the Centcom [area], only one-third of those are in Afghanistan, the other two-thirds are elsewhere throughout Centcom supporting the needs of the combatant commander and contingencies or presence or ISR or other work in support of the Centcom [area] that's not Afghanistan. The U.S. has always had a presence in the [Persian] Gulf of one kind of another, and that's likely to continue going forward, especially given the instability in the region.

The other thing I would mention in terms of threats, I mentioned the geostrategic [threats], but the other is the functional or technical issues that our military needs to address that represent new challenges. Missile defense is one of the more obvious [things] that has grown in importance over the last 20 years or so as ballistic missile technology has proliferated in the Centcom [area], for example, and other places as well.

Obviously, the cyber domain is growing in importance as both an area of opportunities, but also of growing threats. The proliferation of information technologies and the importance of the cyber domain is a new area for the military -- in relative terms -- where we'll have to progress and we'll get better at even though defense resources are going to be constrained.

Another is space situational awareness. There are now, I think, 59 space-faring nations, and the space domain is now more congested than it had been, say, 30-years ago, and it's more contested as well. We have requirements for space situational awareness just to know what's going on in space just for safety of flight issues if nothing else. So we have new requirements in that area that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago.

In these new technology areas . . . there is growth and need to continue to evolve our forces, even as we potentially get a little bit smaller given the budget constraints going forward.

FP: Can you talk about political resistance to the Air Force's cuts in everything from aircraft to the realignment of Air National Guard units as it tries to become a smaller but stronger force?

MD: In relative terms, we're still at the front end of the defense reductions that are now being discussed. So the Budget Control Act from last year caused us to make commitments to $487 billion dollars in defense reductions over the next ten years and this was the first [budget] cycle where we actually had to go to the Congress and say these are the kinds of things we're going to have to do to meet the requirements of the Budget Control Act and these are the kinds of strategic level decisions we're making. There will be give and take going forward, I'm confident.

In the larger context, it's important to take into account that this was the first opportunity for Congress to really see and understand what it meant to take $487 billion dollars out of the defense program and what it might mean going forward if additional reductions in defense need to be considered depending on how the national leadership works through all those issues between Congress and the president. This is not easy, and it is not possible to take that much money out of the defense program and not have an impact on units, on states, on businesses, on communities -- the dollars will come out somewhere.

Again, this is the first cycle where Congress got to see some of those things, and not all of the proposed reductions were well-received. But again, it's the normal course of our democracy that there will be give and take on these issues but there's certainly more [cuts] to play out to implement the requirements of the Budget Control Act . . . and whatever comes from future deliberations between the Congress and the president.

Editor's note: Donley's spokesman emailed FP the following statement on unmanned aircraft.

MD: We've clearly seen the value of Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the joint fight, and we've made the institutional commitment to this important capability within our Air Force. For example, we've created career fields for Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilots and sensor operators, and over the past two years, the Air Force has provided initial qualification training to more Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilots than bomber and fighter pilots combined.

Although almost every area of our budget faces constrained resources, we have taken care to protect the distinctive capabilities on which our teammates depend. So we have minimized reductions, or in some cases increased our investments, in areas such as Long Range Strike, Air?Sea Battle-related programs, and special operations, but also in Remotely Piloted Aircraft because they are clearly a part of our Service's future.

As you suggest, they do currently have some vulnerabilities, to include flying in hostile air environments. The RQ-170 is a low-observable Remotely Piloted Aircraft being developed, tested and fielded by the Air Force, and we also are looking at how we can capitalize on the benefits of remotely-piloted platforms in non-Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions. A good example of that is our work on the Long Range Strike bomber, which will be designed to accommodate manned or unmanned operations.

So there is no question that Remotely Piloted Aircraft will be a permanent part of the Air Force inventory, and we will continue our work to maintain the right mix of remotely-piloted and manned, high-performance aircraft for the joint team.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

National Security

Are We Winning in Afghanistan?

An exclusive interview with Gen. John Allen, commander of America's forgotten war.

The lack of a clearly defined narrative about Afghanistan, combined with election noise and economic worries in the United States, has pushed the war out of the American consciousness. In recent weeks, the spate of insider attacks put it back on the media's map, temporarily. But the next several months will in many ways shape the U.S. exit between now and December 2014. Soon, we will learn how many troops will remain in the country. We'll learn what impact attacks on militants may have on the battlefield. We'll see if the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) can truly stand on their own. And we'll learn just how fast U.S. forces will be sent to the exits.

FP's Gordon Lubold sat down with Gen. John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), in his office in Kabul on Aug. 29 -- as he scrambled to stop the insider attacks against U.S. forces and just over two months before he submits his recommendation to President Barack Obama on the size of the force he thinks he'll need through next year. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

In addition to troop levels and the state of the ANSF, Allen talked about a new phenomenon in the war: a series of local uprisings that remain disconnected from each other and the Afghan government but that could possibly come together to pose a serious threat to the Taliban. Talking at greater length about the uprisings than he has before, and drawing a link to the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, Allen said, "This is a really important moment for this campaign because the brutality of the Taliban and the desire for local communities to have security has become so, so prominent -- as it was in Anbar -- that they're willing to take the situation into their own hands to do this."

Meanwhile, Allen provided some insight into how he will frame his report to the president: "The battle space has really changed. I used to say how much combat power I'm going to need. It's not any longer a pure measure of combat power, because much of what is generating success for us is less about conventional maneuver units than it is about the combination of conventional maneuver units with the success that is being achieved with the security force assistance." The Afghans, he says, are really stepping up to the task. Washington will certainly be watching to see whether he is right.

Foreign Policy: Thanks again for sitting down with us. I am particularly interested in these uprisings in the east and how you view them. They are in their nascency, but I am told they may be a significant trend down the line. Are we talking "Andar Awakening"?

Gen. John Allen: They're actually calling it the Andar Awakening ... to plagiarize our Anbar Awakening. [But] let me just make a couple of general remarks. It's been a pretty busy summer. We're about 20 days from finishing up the recovery of the surge. We are inserting our Security Force Assistance Teams. We're reposturing the battle space to account for that. The ANSF is really taking over much more of the fighting than it has done in the past. The Security Force Assistance Teams are really accelerating that.

Unprompted by me, as I circulate in the battle space, the brigade commanders are uniformly, in different regional commands, using the term "game-changer" with the Security Force Assistance Teams in really accelerating where we want the ANSF to go. So the recovery of the surge, the reposturing of the battle space, the insertion of the Security Force Assistance Teams, the ANSF moving more into the lead, fighting the insurgency, the beginning of the base closure....

All of that has been going on this summer.... On the whole, the campaign is on track.

What I have been asked in the past is, "When are you shifting the main effort from the south to the east?" And I respond with, "That's not the question." I'm weighting the fight in the east because they need the resources, 'cause that, that insurgent fight is different than the insurgent fight everywhere else in the battle space. But I'm shifting the main effort right now, and the main effort is shifting in that we, ISAF, will become the supporting effort. The ANSF will become the main effort....

FP: Is that where you wanted to be in terms of the schedule, the ANSF taking over?

Allen: It's actually ahead of time.... What you see I have in the battle space now is a combination of advisors and main-force units. The advisors are inside the Afghan units. The main-force units are partnered with them or are conducting independent ops, and there are really very few independent ISAF operations anymore. It is very, very substantially partnered, and in many cases they are actually ANSF-led.

Now I just came back from [Regional Command-East], where I spent a good bit of time earlier this week with both of the ANSF corps commanders. We're seeing the ANSF routinely conduct operations now from squad level to corps level. I mean, they're running the entire spectrum of operations. Do they need help? The answer is yes. They need a lot of help still, because we still haven't recruited the whole force. Which I think is important for people to understand. We've probably got another 15,000 to 20,000 to go [to get to a total force of 352,000]. But we don't finish the whole build of the force until December of next year. So I'm actually pretty pleased with where the ANSF is right now, given where they were just two years ago. But much work remains to be done. We've got enablers that have to come online. We've got to build their capabilities to employ, for example, artillery. We've got to work very hard on their sustainment and resupply capabilities.

FP: Which means airlift, for example --

Allen: Airlift, and we can talk about the air piece of it. That is one that has got a lot of my attention, and it's going to be a long time to fix that actually. But the sustainment piece of this, as I actually was saying just this morning to my leaders, a young army might do quite well in close combat, but young armies fail typically to sustain themselves. And so we're putting a tremendous amount of effort, actually, into engendering habits of sustainment. And it's everything from being able to properly convoy the equipment and the fuels and that sort of thing to the various places for distribution to getting the spare parts to the mechanics so they can turn the wrenches in the motor pools to keep the vehicles up.

FP: You just returned from the east. Tell me about these uprisings against the Taliban and how you see them. 

Allen: They're really an important moment, actually. And I had the conversation with [President Hamid Karzai] this morning. Each, each one is an organic movement. And they're popping up in a lot of different places. We're going to start to plot them on a map -- we've actually done it already -- but we're going to do some analysis as to, is it tribal? Is it ethnic? What was the particular cause? What is the potential solution?

[Andar district in Ghazni province] is the most conspicuous right now, but there's another really substantial one that's growing in Kamdesh in southern Nuristan. There's one growing in Wardak. There's one growing in Ghor. We've heard of one in Faryab.

And so what we have to do is, as I said to [Karzai] this morning, it's not just about supporting Andar in Ghazni. This is a really important moment for this campaign because the brutality of the Taliban and the desire for local communities to have security has become so, so prominent -- as it was in Anbar -- that they're willing to take the situation into their own hands to do this.

FP: What is the proper role for ISAF to play here?

Allen: We're not playing a role. If we do at all, it will be always through GIRoA [government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] ... because we don't want an uprising to appear to be responsive to us. We want it to be responsive to the local conditions, and we ultimately would like to see GIRoA be the solution for them. And that's the right thing to do.

So I think that as we analyze each one of these, each one started for a different reason, and so we've got to be sensitive to the kinds of assistance. When I say "we," I always mean GIRoA, the Afghan government. It has to be sensitive to why it started and how conceivably it can help the people. They ought to want to help the people. And how they might help the people is going to be different in each place. It could be about local employment. It could be about a school. It could be about a clinic. It could be about fresh water. Just a little bit of help gives the people in that village, or cluster of villages, a choice for the first time. Because right now their only choice is fighting the Taliban or being repressed by the Taliban.

FP: Could the kind of assistance these villages might be provided include arms?

Allen: The answer is yes, but that's a decision made by the Afghans.

FP: You seem fairly bullish on this trend.

Allen: I think it is.... In fact, when I first visited Ghazni in August of last year, Andar was considered almost terra incognita. We had to fight into Andar and fight out of Andar. Now Andar is a place that's completely different. And this will be, for Afghans who are watching the world unfold for them, what they're seeing is that the ANSF has created a security bubble in a lot of places around the country. Now there's still a lot of fighting that's going on, but there are people that now -- again, the conversation with the president today -- there are places in this country where the people can have a post-conflict conversation.

We saw this in Anbar. It is very much like what we experienced in Anbar. Now is the time to surge capabilities for governance and economic opportunity into the "white space" that has been created by and largely by the Afghan forces. So that's one condition that's being seen in the battle space. But another condition that's being seen in the battle space is what we just talked about, which is people who are tired of the constant oppression and the nature of the quality of their life inflicted on them by the Taliban. They want something different, but they don't really have any choices. And so this gives them a choice as well.

FP: I understand the need to put an Afghan face on this. But to whatever extent the Afghan government plays a role, they'll still need coalition assistance, say, in the form of a coalition helicopter. Suddenly the help looks very Western, right?

Allen: I'm telling you right now, we're resupplying in Kamdesh using Afghan Army helicopters. They're getting up there. They're doing it. They've inserted commandos up there. They're resupplying local elements up there. They're maintaining the ANP [Afghan National Police] in some key checkpoints and strong points. They're maintaining them. Every now and again, they'll run out of helicopters, and we'll help 'em. But part of this is a genuine effort, a genuine desire on behalf of the Afghans to truly make this an Afghan spontaneous uprising, but an Afghan-supported effort, too. Which I think is great.

FP: Let's just say you're leaving ISAF by next spring. Do you have so much hope in this that things could look quite a bit different by then

Allen: Well, I think there are some places it could. I think there's some places; it's really too early to tell.

FP: Right. Peace won't break out across the entire land.

Allen: No, that's right, but there will be some.... Remember, it didn't all break out in Iraq at the same time. It started in Anbar. If properly nurtured, if properly nurtured, these could become important local influences in blunting the Taliban's attempt to get into the population.

FP: The surge troops will soon redeploy, and you will have roughly 68,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan. You have said publicly that you would like to maintain as much of that force as possible through next year.

Allen: Well, let me just give you a broad idea of how we're disposed at [68,000], and we'll be at [68,000] on 1 October. A great deal of the conventional combat power is going to be in the east to continue to partner closely with [Afghan units]. So we're going to have conventional combat power in here to partner with them on operations, to do corps-level operations, where they're hitting the enemy simultaneously across the network. We've also, though, inserted a lot of advisors in there, too. So we're both advising and we're partnering.... [One Afghan corps] commander said to my division commander, "On the 1st of July, I got it." And he does; he does got it. His name is Hamid. He's very good, and he's out there kicking ass. I'm telling you.

But we have loaded it up with Afghans now, so there is a full corps of Afghans, a battalion of [Afghan National Civil Order Police]. We've gotten permission to increase the Afghan Local Police in there. We're using commando battalions to do focused operations. So even though our numbers have come down, we've still got a substantial British contingent, a substantial Marine contingent with Army enablers, and a large Afghan presence there.

FP: So you're not worried about the south?

Allen: Well, I'm going to watch it very closely. I'm going to watch it very closely because this in the end, of course, is the spiritual homeland of the Pashtun rebellion. So for us it is less about a full-up conventional battle here than it is about consolidating our holds on the population, which is the key terrain and the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency operation.

FP: I want to ask you about Pakistani influence.

Allen: It's substantial. The Haqqanis are still very active. The Haqqanis as a group, it's important to keep an eye on them.... Now again, good Irishman here, I'm tapping wood every time I say this, but the fact that there have not been large-scale attacks inside [Kabul] -- which is one of the most threatened cities on the planet, given the threat streams emanating out of North Waziristan and out of terrorist concentrations along the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and inside Afghanistan -- is a direct reflection to, I think, the success of our posturing of conventional forces and the use of special operations forces in very close integration.

FP: When will you make your recommendation to President Obama regarding troop strength?

Allen: My goal now is to have something out of here by the middle of November.

FP: What will it include?

Allen: It's going to have several parts to it. I'm going to assess the state of the insurgency, as we saw it this year. I'm going to assess the state of the ANSF, as it has evolved this year. And, you know, I really think that's good news. In fact, both of those are good-news stories. I'm going to assess the operational conditions in '13 and then make a recommendation on what I think to be the kind of forces that I'll need in '13 and '14.

And I used to use a different term because the battle space has really changed. I used to say how much combat power I'm going to need. It's not any longer a pure measure of combat power, because much of what is generating success for us is less about conventional maneuver units than it is about the combination of conventional maneuver units with the success that is being achieved with the security force assistance. So it is a combination of forces and capabilities which I'll clearly depict as being in synergy that I'll seek to make in the recommendation. So it's about numbers, but within those numbers, it's about being able to depict the kinds of forces necessary to continue to generate success.

STR/AFP/Getty Images