Center for Strategic Communication

International Security Assistance Force Commander U.S. Marine Corps General John Allen visits Forward Operating Base Farah, August 11, 2012. Photo: ISAF/Flickr

General John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said he still doesn’t know why at least 10 NATO troops have died in the last two weeks at the hands of the Afghan forces they mentor. He suspects it may have something to do with asking those Afghans to perform dangerous operations during the recent Muslim holy month. Maybe.

If that doesn’t sound like a positive sign for the decade-long war — after all, the entire American strategy now depends on turning security over to the Afghans — Allen wasn’t in a mood to sugar-coat Afghanistan. In what may have been the bluntest press conference delivered by a top commander since the U.S. went to war in 2001, Allen told Pentagon reporters he expected Afghanistan will still suffer from “violence” after U.S. combat ends in 2014; that Hamid Karzai’s government has to act “now” to govern parts of the country that NATO has taken from the Taliban; and that a reduction in violence in the country since last year “may not be statistically significant.”

During the past several weeks, Afghan forces have turned their guns on the U.S. troops that mentor them with increasing frequency. The Afghan troops have killed at least 40 U.S. and allied forces this year, the most since the war began, and Karzai’s government insists the blame lies with Pakistani infiltrators, not Afghans themselves. Allen diplomatically said he was “looking forward to the Afghans providing us with the intelligence” they’re using to reach that conclusion.

But beyond that, Allen said his staff was still studying why the attacks have increased. One possible contributing factor: the holy month of Ramazan, which most of the Muslim world calls Ramadan. Although Ramazan is an annual event, it doesn’t occur at the same time annually on the western calendar, and this year it fell during the summer fighting season. The “daily pressures” of war and the “sacrifices associated with fasting,” especially with a larger and newer force of Afghan recruits, may have contributed to some Afghan forces snapping. When Danger Room pressed Allen on the role Ramazan may have played in the so-called “green-on-blue” attacks, Allen clarified that he wasn’t blaming Ramazan exclusively, and that U.S. forces working with Afghan units tried to time their operations closer to the mornings and evenings, so fasting Afghans wouldn’t be overly taxed.

Allen said the key to turning the tide of the green-on-blue violence would be “the growing strength, every day, of the green and the blue.” What he didn’t say was that U.S. forces now carry loaded weapons at all times when dealing with their Afghan counterparts, should they need to defend themselves.

But the commander didn’t paint an optimistic picture of Afghanistan inexorably growing peaceful as U.S. troops withdraw. Asked to describe what Afghanistan will look like on January 1, 2015, when NATO’s mission ends, Allen said that the 352,000-strong Afghan army and police will need to “deal with violence” from the insurgency — which, Allen said, would need to wage “a costly fight for at least another decade” to topple what the U.S. has built. (Allen did not offer a prediction that the Taliban would cease fighting.) While many Afghanistan analysts believe that, it is rare to hear the commander of the war make the same assessment.

Allen argued that his forces have made progress over the past year, by pushing the Taliban and its allies out of populated areas, largely in the south. Insurgent violence, he said, is now concentrated in smaller areas: 10 out of 405 Afghan districts are now responsible for half of the attacks nationwide. (Strikingly, six of those 10 districts are in sparsely-populated Helmand province, which the Marines devoted tens of thousands of troops and the better part of three years in a controversial fight to subdue.)

But Allen conceded that the Taliban’s ability to attack U.S. troops has not meaningfully diminished over the past year. Attacks initiated by the Taliban are down three percent over this time last year, when the Obama administration announced it would begin to withdraw the 30,000 surge troops. Allen argued that clearing the population centers was significant, but said straightforwardly that the drop in violence “may not be statistically significant.” And that relative stasis in violence follows a similar statistical plateau from the previous year.

Allen also had a message for Karzai. When musing on Afghanistan’s prospects for 2015, he said the Afghans would have to make a “choice” about what kind of country they wanted to live in. Key to securing the country would be for the Karzai government to provide honest, capable governance, particularly in local areas — and “now is the moment for the Karzai government” to begin moving into the areas that U.S. forces have taken back from the Taliban. Left unsaid: the Afghan government that the U.S. has spent a decade and billions of dollars propping up can squander whatever gains U.S. troops have achieved.

Many senior U.S. generals portray even the setbacks of the war as signs of imminent progress. But this may have been Allen’s last time speaking to the Pentagon press corps in his current job. The Wall Street Journal reports that Allen will soon be promoted to NATO Supreme Allied Commander, and will be replaced in Afghanistan by General Joseph Dunford, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. If this was Allen’s final press conference as war commander, he did not spend it telling the public — or the Pentagon, or the Karzai government, or the Obama administration — what it might want to hear.