Gen. John Allen speaks at a change of command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan on Feb. 10. (ISAF Media)
WASHINGTON — U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen has asked to retire, the White House announced Tuesday, meaning the officer who led the war in Afghanistan for the past 19 months will not become the next top officer in Europe.
President Obama said in a statement that he accepted Allen’s request to retire “so he can address health issues within his family.” The statement doesn’t say what those issues are, but the Washington Post reported that Allen said in a phone interview that his wife, Kathy, is coping with chronic health problems, including an autoimmune disorder.
“Right now, I’ve just got to get her well,” Allen said. “It’s time to take care of my family.”
Marine Gen. John Kelly, the four-star head of U.S. Southern Command in Miami, told Marine Corps Times on Tuesday that Allen’s departure is “entirely his choice.”
“He’s as good as they come,” said Kelly, who described Allen as one of his best friends. “He’s a national asset, and the fact that he’s not going to remain is a loss for NATO and the United States.”
Obama credited Allen with working to strengthen the coalition of nations that has sent troops to serve in the International Security Assistance Force he led from Kabul. He also worked to improve relations with the Afghan government, the president said.
“Above all, he cares deeply for the men and women in uniform who serve our nation — as well as their families — and I am grateful for the sacrifices made by his family in supporting him during his service,” Obama said.
“John Allen is one of America’s finest military leaders, a true patriot, and a man I have come to respect greatly. I wish him and his family the very best as they begin this new chapter, and we will carry forward the extraordinary work that General Allen led in Afghanistan.”
The decision means that Allen will not become the next supreme allied commander of NATO and head of U.S. European Command. Obama tapped him for the position last year, but the nomination was put on hold in November after he was ensnared in a scandal that led to the Nov. 9 resignation of retired Army Gen. David Petraeus as head of the CIA after Patraeus admitted to an extramarital affair.
Allen faced scrutiny after authorities discovered emails between the general and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, whose complaints to an FBI agent about anonymous harassing email led to the revelation that Petraeus had an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
Pentagon officials initially described the emails between Kelley and Allen as inappropriate and flirtatious, but the general ultimately was cleared of any wrongdoing. His friends and supporters told media he was guilty of nothing other than being polite and responding to messages from Kelley, who befriended several general officers when they served at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa.
Allen took over the war in Afghanistan from Petraeus in summer 2011. He previously had served as the deputy commander at CENTCOM since fall 2008, where he focused not only on tactical needs, but on facets of the war in Afghanistan that received less attention, such as its floundering economy.
Allen was replaced as the top commander in Afghanistan on Feb. 10 by Gen. Joseph Dunford, who had served as the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps since October 2010.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement Tuesday that Allen’s leadership in Afghanistan will “long be remembered as pivotal to this campaign.” His strategy put the U.S. on the right path toward completing its mission there, with Afghan forces stepping into the lead for security nationwide this spring, Panetta said.
“General Allen’s selfless dedicated to our troops and to their mission was a source of inspiration to those who served with him, as well as to those of us here at home,” Panetta said. “He has earned the lasting thanks of his nation for carrying the heavy burden of leadership with utmost professionalism and courage. I wish him and his entire family all the best in the next chapter of their lives.”