Can Marine Corps Gen. John Allen defend the increasingly unpopular war at home?

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General Allen listens to Senator Joseph Lieberman in Washington / Reuters

In Kabul, Gen. John Allen has the difficult job of commanding all Western forces in Afghanistan. Here in Washington, he'll face a different kind of challenge: defending the unpopular war to skeptical lawmakers and journalists.

It is a new mission for the Marine general, who hasn't testified before either the House or Senate Armed Services panels since taking his post last year. Allen is also certain to face hard questions about whether troop withdrawals should accelerate because of the war's uncertain progress and the widespread Afghan fury over last weekend's massacre of 16 civilians allegedly by one American soldier.

Serving as the face of an unpopular war would be difficult for any general, but Allen may have a particularly tough time because of his low public profile. In the days since news of the attack in Kandahar province went public, Allen has spoken to CNN.

His predecessor, David Petraeus, was a celebrity general who spent considerable time testifying on the Hill and talking to reporters. During the contentious debate over the Iraq surge, the Bush administration effectively made Petraeus the primary surrogate for discussions with lawmakers. During later visits back home from the war zones, Petraeus regularly spoke at public events.

Allen, by contrast, is widely respected in the Pentagon and White House but has little experience in the public-relations aspects of his job. His testimony next Tuesday will be the first time he has been back on the Hill since his initial confirmation hearing last June (Allen will also testify on Thursday). Military officials say that Allen will hold a Pentagon news conference on Monday, but the commander doesn't--at least for the moment--have any other public events on his schedule.

"A lot of this is based on relationships, and if a general hasn't gotten to know individual reporters it makes the media part of the job harder," said retired Army Col. Steve Boylan, who spent several years serving as Petraeus's primary spokesman. "The other issue is how well members of Congress know him. By the time Petraeus had been confirmed for the CIA, he'd been to the Hill more than anyone in uniform besides the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

Boylan said that Petraeus saw his interactions with lawmakers and the media as important aspects of his job but had only taken on so public a role at the express direction of senior Bush administration officials.

"Let's face it, when the president singles you out, you have to do what's asked," Boylan said. "Whenever President Bush talked about Iraq, Petraeus's name was in the speech, usually at least a half dozen times."

Allen is still working to build up relationships with key lawmakers and the press. His visit also comes during an unusually difficult phase of the war. Public support is falling--a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 60 percent of Americans believe the war is no longer worth the costs--and leading GOP presidential contenders have started signaling they believe the war should wind down sooner than planned. The deadly shootings in Kandahar are adding fuel to domestic doubts about the conflict.

Capt. John Kirby, Allen's spokesman, said that the commander was ready for whatever lawmakers choose to ask him.

"General Allen will be prepared to deal with all their questions about the mission in Afghanistan and how it's going," he said.

The commander, Kirby said, would highlight his belief that the U.S. and its allies "have wrested the initiative from the Taliban" on the battlefield, and made real progress toward building Afghan security forces capable of gradually supplanting the NATO forces. 

Many senior military officials privately express frustration that Allen is so little known despite his key role in turning around the Iraq war. 

During the run-up to the surge, Allen commanded all of the Marine forces in Anbar province, then a hotbed of the insurgency. Allen was the first U.S. general to notice that Sunni tribes there were turning against al-Qaida, and he spent considerable time and resources persuading Sunni leaders to fight alongside the U.S. That cooperation helped push al-Qaida out of the area, an important turning point of the broader war.

Other officers were often quietly critical of Allen's boss, Petraeus, who was sometimes accused of being too eager to burnish his own image to continue ascending in the military hierarchy. Allen doesn't face any of those critiques. 

Still, Allen's low public profile will almost certainly make his tough PR job even tougher. But he will become better known next week during the Capitol Hill hearings. If they go well, the Obama administration--and the military--will have a powerful new advocate for giving the current Afghan war strategy more time to work. If they don't, the White House may wish it had a better salesman.

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