Four days ago, America's top soldier in Afghanistan walked into a room of Afghans, ready to face their wrath.
The men, all tribal elders from the province of Logar, were seething with anger. Another one of the coalition's so-called "precision" strikes had just levelled a home in the Baraki Barak district, killing 18 civilians who were attending a wedding party inside. The home, believed to be packed with visiting family members, was completely destroyed.
In the hours that followed, NATO officials did not acknowledge the casualties, saying their records showed that only militants had been killed, and that two female bystanders had been treated at a NATO hospital. Villagers responded with rage. They piled the dead bodies into vans and pickups trucks, brought them to the house of the provincial governor, and put them on display for the entire village to see.
Upon hearing the news, Afghan President Hamid Karzai cut short his visit to China and lashed out at NATO forces, the sort of public lambasting that has been become more frequent over the past several months.
"This is unacceptable, it cannot be tolerated," he said, questioning why NATO had yet to confirm the casualties when the villagers had put the dead bodies on display.
Faced with yet another incident in which NATO troops had killed innocent Afghan civilians, Gen. John Allen did the one thing that may well define his legacy here in Afghanistan:
He stood up and faced the music.
On Friday, less than 48 hours after the initial airstrike, Allen, or "the boss" as his subordinates affectionately refer to him, walked into that room filled with elderly, turbaned men, many with their beards dyed blood-red, their piercing Pashtun eyes fixated on the only foreigner in the room. These were the villagers of Baraki Barak.
Military sources say the trip wasn't pre-planned. Gen. Allen wanted to do it, one military official said, "because it's the right thing to do. That's what makes him special."
Allen started in a soft, somber-yet-deliberate tone.
"I've come here today to offer you my condolences and my regrets," he said, "and more importantly, to apologize to each of you for this tragedy."
Though Allen explained the reasoning behind the attack--that coalition forces had determined a militant had holed himself up inside, using wedding guests as human shields--he did not mince his words.
"I have a family of my own, and I see the faces of my own children, and I know that no apology can bring back the life of the children or the people who perished in this tragedy and this accident."
The apology was typically Allen-esque. There was no gaggle of reporters in the room, and the only cameraman allowed inside, belonging to NATO TV, was asked to leave a few minutes into the meeting so that the Afghans wouldn't feel intimidated.
There's no denying the past few months have been exceptionally difficult for coalition forces, with Allen himself forced into the uncomfortable position of having to apologize, repeatedly, for NATO actions. In January, video circulated online of U.S. marines urinating on bodies of dead Afghans. In February, U.S. troops burned copies of the Koran at a NATO airbase. The incident set off a wave of violence that left more than two dozen dead, including at least two U.S. soldiers killed in "reprisal attacks" claimed by the Taliban.
A month later, U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Bates allegedly wandered off his remote outpost and went on a shooting spree in an Afghan village, killing 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children, as they slept. It was one of the worst massacres in the decade-long Afghan mission.
In the face of so many setbacks, many say it's Allen's singular ability to connect with Afghans, not as a commanding general but as a human being, that has kept the Afghan mission on track.
When Allen makes appearances alongside his Afghan counterparts, he routinely begins by making eye contact and thanking each of them by name--a mark of considerable respect in Afghan culture. He visits NATO outposts and Afghan troops, trips known as battlefield circulations, at least twice a week. And when he meets rank-and-file Afghan troops, he stops to say "Salam alaikum," the traditional Muslim greeting meaning "peace be with you." He'll even ask them how they're doing, in Pashto.
On Monday's visit to Zabul province, the general spent nearly the entire flight engrossed in ISAF operational updates from across the region, his eyes carefully scanning each page before turning to the next. In his thick-rimmed glasses and deep concentration, he looked every bit the bookworm as he did the "boss."
Later, following a meeting with the provincial governor of Zabul, a southern province that shares a long, mountainous border with Pakistan, Allen was asked why, when he apologized to the villagers of Logar, he referred to himself as a "servant" of the very people whose families the NATO airstrike destroyed.
"My affection for the Afghan people is very great. I feel a great kinship for them.
"I'm here to serve the objectives of the international community, but in accomplishing those objectives, we are serving the Afghan people.
"It's about them. It's about them and the future. So I'm serving them and I serve them proudly."
Perhaps nothing illustrates that more than a simple gesture Allen made during the trip, one so subtle it was missed by most observers.
Moments earlier, as Allen entered the compound to greet the provincial governor, the two held hands as they walked into the meeting hall. The NATO training mission's slogan in Afghanistan is "Shohna ba Shohna" or "shoulder to shoulder."
For Allen, it's also hand to hand.
- Politics & Government