KABUL - A tightly choreographed ceremony to mark the last day of Gen. John Allen's military command in Afghanistan had the feel of a pep rally for a war effort the majority of Americans have lost faith in, with speakers repeating what has become a tricky word in this nebulous conflict: "victory."
"This is winning, this is what victory looks like, and we should not shrink from these words," Allen said as he handed command of international military forces in Afghanistan to Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Allen cautioned that "our victory here may never be marked by a parade or date on a calendar" but rather by the steady improvement of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), who are set to take over security of the country by the end of 2014. Still, the ANSF has much to overcome, including logistical issues, lack of air support, corruption and a rate of attrition that costs a third of the force each year.
What victory might look like is something two presidents and countless military leaders have struggled to define for more than 11 years.
Calling the twilight of the war effort the "historic birth of democracy" in Afghanistan, Allen said his optimism about the future of the country had grown in his 19 months as commander.
"Victory and winning can be the only outcome," he said.
Allen spent the end of his tenure under a cloud after he was caught up in the email scandal that eventually caused former Gen. David Petraeus to admit an extramarital affair and step down from his post as CIA director. Allen was found to have traded hundreds of e-mails with a Florida woman linked to the Petraeus scandal but was cleared of any wrongdoing after an investigation.
Now, Allen heads back to the U.S. to await the outcome of his nomination to become head of NATO forces in Europe, which had been put on hold until he was cleared of misconduct in the email case.
Since taking the reins in July 2011, Allen has presided over growing the Afghan National Security Forces to their current level of about 350,000 troops, as well as declining casualties among coalition forces as Afghans started doing more of the fighting. But, despite Sunday's triumphant tone, he leaves a country with a still fragile, deeply corrupt government and an insurgency that shows no sign of giving up nor signs of a sincere commitment to negotations. While the Afghan military has grown to about its target strength, major questions remain about its ability to operate independently once all international combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
Analysts note that the Taliban insurgents also perceive themselves as winning the conflict. They say the guerrillas are likely to intensify operations after 2014 with the aim of destabilizing the Kabul government and retaking their former strongholds in the east and south of the country.
Allen hands command to a fellow marine in Dunford, who previously served as assistant commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Dunford spoke for little more than two minutes, continuing the theme of victory.
"ISAF will remain focused on winning," he said, adding "What's not changed is the inevitability of our success."