By Jim Michaels, USA TODAY
KABUL - Marine Gen. John Allen relinquished command of coalition forces in Afghanistan on Sunday, expressing optimism about the nation's future but saying the world will keep a close watch on how the government handles next year's elections and whether it follows through on promised reforms.
"The big benchmark for all of us is going to be the election," Allen told reporters moments before a simple ceremony in which he handed the battle colors to another U.S. Marine general, Joseph Dunford.
The last elections, held in 2009, were marred by violence and allegations of corruption. Elections are scheduled for next year, a time when most security will be the responsibility of the Afghan security forces and the American presence will be significantly reduced.
"The international community is in this to a point, but it won't be in this to a fault," Allen said. "What that means is we will all watch the outcome of the election."
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pledged to combat endemic corruption in his country and improve government transparency. "The rhetoric has to be accompanied by action," Allen said.
Hoping to avoid a repeat of history, U.S. officials have emphasized the importance of continued support of Afghanistan after 2014 when most U.S. combat forces will leave.
The Soviets withdrew nearly all support for Afghanistan's government after its troops left the country in 1989, leading to the collapse of the Soviet-backed government and civil war several years later.
By contrast, the United States and its allies have pledged to continue supporting Afghanistan's military and economy even after most foreign troops are gone.
But Allen said the United States and its allies will expect to see improvements in governance and efforts to reduce corruption.
"The normal follow through on counterinsurgency is the development of governmental capacity," Allen said.
Still he said such improvements usually lag behind security progress and urged the international community to exercise patience.
"We all have to recognize the limits of the capacity of the Afghan people and the government at this particular moment," Allen said.
On a military level, Allen said the coalition campaign over the past couple years has been successful in pushing the Taliban out of key towns and cities and bolstering the capabilities and confidence of Afghan security forces.
"We are winning," Allen said simply during a speech at an awards presentation before departing Kabul.
Allen has been nominated to the top NATO job in Europe. He was to fly out of Kabul after the ceremony Sunday after 19 months in the job.
Allen earned a reputation as both an aggressive commander and cerebral officer. In Iraq in 2007 he helped lead a successful effort to consolidate and broaden a tribal revolt against al-Qaeda in Iraq's western desert.
Dunford is a well-respected troop commander who led a Marine regiment during the U.S.-led attack into Iraq in 2003. His aggressiveness and coolness under fire earned him the moniker Fighting Joe.