The Green Beret Who Wouldn’t Go Home
John Allen, who took part in the initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, is still there as a contractor, living a life of permanent war and embroiled in controversy over a militia atrocity
KABUL— John Allen’s war officially ended in 2002, only months after it began, when an enemy grenade blast sent the young Green Beret hurtling through a windshield.
Fifteen years later, he’s still in Afghanistan, holed up in a friend’s attic with a whiskey bottle and a piano for company. Mr. Allen is hoping to ride out the latest controversy surrounding his private security firm, which flared up when Afghan militiamen he was advising cut off the heads of four enemy fighters and put them on display.
The former Green Beret was helping mobilize the militia to target and kill commanders from the terrorist group Islamic State. At the time of the beheadings, in late 2015, a U.S. Special Forces team based in Nangarhar province was assisting Mr. Allen in his efforts. Islamic State had begun to lay roots there, sparking fears that Afghanistan would become another haven for the terrorist group like Syria, Iraq and Libya had.
After the ghastly display, Mr. Allen was told to drop his project. “You’re f—ing done,” Mr. Allen said a U.S. Special Forces captain told him.
Afghanistan is full of U.S. veterans who served here in the early years of the war and returned to work as contractors, part of an industry worth billions of dollars. The U.S. Defense Department alone employs more than 9,000 U.S. contractors in Afghanistan to handle logistics, help train local forces and provide security.
Early on, there was little oversight over guns for hire before a series of scandals led then-President Hamid Karzai in 2010 to issue strict regulations that dramatically reduced the number of providers and scaled back their freedom to operate. The U.S. embassy and the command of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces here say the Wild West days are gone for good.
Mr. Allen’s misadventures in Nangarhar show that the slow withdrawal from America’s longest-running war sometimes leaves loose ends—including soldiers who have spent so long at war that they don’t know how to go home.
The vets are prized in some military circles for their institutional knowledge—a counterweight to the short tours of duty for troops and diplomats who rotate in and out and barely get to know the country. They are free of the many restrictions that bind the military and U.S. embassy. The danger, of course, is what happens if they go rogue.
If anyone could navigate Afghanistan’s complex conflict it was Mr. Allen. The son of a military pilot, Mr. Allen arrived in Afghanistan as a Green Beret after the Sept. 11 terror attacks to fight the Taliban. In 2002, a grenade blast left him so badly injured that he spent over 18 months in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Doctors warned he might never walk again. But Mr. Allen recovered enough to return to Afghanistan to set up a private military company, Four Horsemen International, or FHI, which provided wartime services for clients ranging from the Afghan government to the Central Intelligence Agency.
He was left with a limp that seems to vary depending on the audience or his state of health that day. He could be seen on some Friday evenings sporting a cane at Cigar Club, a popular gathering of soldiers, spies and contractors.
By the time of the U.S. troop surge in 2009, FHI was a thriving business. Mr. Allen’s success, his friends say, stemmed from knowledge of the country and comfort on the battlefield. A video clip made the rounds of him dancing to the disco classic “Staying Alive” on a road in a Taliban area.
“He’s the living, breathing example of the wounded warrior who has succeeded,” said Michael Ricky, a security analyst and friend in Kabul.
But Afghanistan’s dangers soon tripped up Mr. Allen’s firm. A former Australian employee, Robert Langdon, killed an Afghan colleague in a dispute over an ambushed convoy and was sentenced to death by an Afghan court. The former reconnaissance officer was recently released after seven years in prison. He maintained the killing was self-defense.
Mr. Allen said U.S. authorities tried and failed to blacklist his firm—which still was sponsoring Mr. Langdon’s visa at the time of the incident—and his business suffered as a result. “They said, oh, I didn’t train him properly. He’s Australian f—ing Special Forces. You want me to train him more than that?”
Mr. Allen’s company still managed to win a small contract to provide interpreters in 2015 to the U.S. military, which he says he hoped to grow into something bigger.
Islamic State’s emergence in Afghanistan offered Mr. Allen another opportunity to expand this relationship. A friend and powerful Afghan parliamentarian from Nangarhar, Zahir Qadir, was raising a militia that would fight Islamic State. Mr. Allen decided he could help Mr. Qadir, a man he had fought alongside in Afghanistan’s rugged Tora Bora region, and set out to enlist U.S. military support for their group.
“We’re not warlords or militias,” Mr. Qadir said in an interview, taking issue with both descriptions. “It is our responsibility to defend ourselves.”
At the time, the U.S. military footprint in east Afghanistan, where Islamic State had seized several districts, had shrunk to a 12-man special operations team at Forward Operating Base Fenty that was largely restricted to a training and advisory role. The small presence made powerful figures like Mr. Qadir important potential allies in the vast and mountainous battlefield that stretched to the porous border with Pakistan. Mr. Allen had the credentials to organize his group into a plausible U.S. ally, both to inform on and fight the extremist group.
A phone call in August 2015 laid the groundwork for a prospective partnership with the U.S. military. After hearing a U.S. Special Forces Major was on the line, Mr. Qadir told his partner to take the call.
“I get on the phone and they’re like, ‘Why! You talk great English,’ ” Mr. Allen recalls. “I’m like, ‘What the hell are you talking about? I’m American. I’m retired SF!’ ”
The U.S. Special Forces major, on his fifth combat tour and in charge of the north and east, says he wanted to meet Mr. Qadir to ask about his plans to fight Islamic State.
Over multiple tours spent embedded in remote Afghan villages, the major had come to believe the U.S.-led military coalition endangered lives by ignoring the country’s power brokers. “The government is unstable and they’re all jockeying for what happens next,” says the officer, over coffee near Fort Bragg, N.C. “By neglecting to build any relationships with them, we lose any visibility on all these political workings. And it makes us less effective—it puts the people more at risk.”
The major invited Messrs. Qadir and Allen to his base in western Kabul. The pair arrived with a bunch of heavily armed men in uniforms, he said. “It was clear that he wanted to put on a big show,” the major recalled.
During the meeting, Mr. Qadir claimed to have 9,000 more men who could purge Afghanistan’s restive east of the Islamic State insurgency, according to the major. In return, Mr. Allen sought U.S. Special Forces help in targeting Islamic State by air and training his militia. At the time, FHI had a handful of employees.
The major agreed to look into it. He later contacted Mr. Allen with positive news: “I’ve done all my homework and I felt comfortable recommending to my chain of command…that we fully back [Mr. Qadir],” he emailed in Sept. 2015. “I’m sold.”
Despite his written expressions of support, the major said he retained doubts about such an alliance. Many in the military suspected Mr. Qadir had a hand in Afghanistan’s bustling heroin trade and connections to the narcotics-funded insurgency—something he denies.
When the major approached his superiors about the prospective partnership, he said, the response was emphatic: No. Instead, they continued to cultivate the relationship for information, offering vague promises of support. “I mean, none of us thought it was a good idea,” said the major. “But what am I going to say to him? We think you’re a liability? You don’t say that.”
In an email to Mr. Allen two days later, the officer explained that direct assistance to nongovernment groups was forbidden, but promised to find a solution: “You know how we operate, we’ll find a loophole, but it’s a setback.”
In late September, Mr. Allen received medical training at the base and nonlethal supplies, such as meal rations, orange panels to identify militia trucks as friendly forces and star clusters to illuminate the battlefield or signal distress. The major said these small tokens helped build trust and that was the extent of their support.
“He could call to report his locations, so that we wouldn’t mistake this giant group of armed men for like, one force or other,” the major said. “So we wouldn’t accidentally, you know, drop on the guy.”
Mr. Qadir said the promised assistance from the U.S. Special Forces ultimately fell far short of expectations. “There were negotiations between us and them,” he said. “But I didn’t see action. Nothing.”
In early October 2015, with supplies for the group and continued promises of U.S. military assistance, Mr. Allen headed for Nangarhar, where his militia would be operating, and hooked up with a U.S. Army Special Forces captain leading the team at Forward Operating Base Fenty.
The 29-year-old Special Forces captain, who entertained his team by capturing a cobra and keeping it as a pet on the base, appeared skeptical about the relationship. Even so, he set up a Dropbox account in October last year to manage the relationship with Mr. Allen’s crew.
“Below is the Google Drive/email account info as mentioned during the meeting,” he wrote in an email with the subject line TP-1. “When we reach our limit on this Dropbox, we will create another to handle the overflow.”
Mr. Allen said the email setup was used to discuss his targeting operations and the email subject line “TP-1” was short for “Target Package One,” a mission that ultimately failed, emails show. The U.S. military declined to make the captain available for an interview.
Over the months that followed, the captain acknowledged Mr. Allen’s field reports and occasionally solicited information about targets. He also collected a roster of the militia that numbered just 80 men, far fewer than the 9,000 members Mr. Qadir had earlier claimed, according to the special forces major.
Over the months, it became clear that the militia was no match for the Islamic State branch that emerged as troops were leaving in 2014 and established a base in Nangarhar province, imposing harsh edicts and carrying out executions. Mr. Qadir accused the government of ignoring the growing Islamic State threat, putting him at odds with Afghan leadership.
In mid-December the White House began deliberating new rules that would give U.S. Special Forces more autonomy to carry out targeting and combat operations against the group, making Mr. Qadir’s ragtag militia even less relevant as a combat partner.
While the White House deliberations were under way, news broke that the militia had in a clash killed and decapitated a number of Islamic State fighters. International media carried pictures of the severed heads placed on piles of rocks the height of a car window so they were visible to those driving past.
Mr. Qadir later went on TV to confirm the militia’s involvement in the killings. He said locals had lost control after months of suffering. “It is natural that if you kill their children, their families, what will be the answer?” Mr. Qadir said.
The captain told Mr. Allen the relationship faced too much top-level resistance—both in the U.S. military and Afghan government.
“I go, what do you mean? Did you tell them that I’m reporting to you every day?” Mr. Allen recalls telling the captain. “Yeah I told them,” Mr. Allen said the captain replied, “but they don’t care.”
Maj. Gen. Sean Swindell, the commander of Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan at the time, declined an interview request, and other U.S. senior military officials also declined to comment on Mr. Allen or the militia.
In the wake of the incident, Mr. Allen was excluded from U.S. military circles and Mr. Allen says the FHI contract to provide interpreters to the U.S. military was canceled. The U.S. military says it has no record of the contract.
In January 2016, the White House authorized the U.S. military in Afghanistan to attack Islamic State and permission to fight the Taliban followed months later. Since then, U.S. forces have bombed Islamic State targets in the east almost daily and escalated operations. In October, a Green Beret became the first U.S. servicemen to die fighting Islamic State in Afghanistan.
Mr. Allen’s activities also became a source of friction for the Afghan government and led to pressure, U.S. officials say, for the U.S. military to sever ties with him and his security company.
Worried friends have urged Mr. Allen to return to the U.S. Even though he hasn’t been home in over three years, Mr. Allen fears possible legal repercussions for his involvement with the militia and wants to stay in Afghanistan to clear his name and repair his relationship with the U.S. military.
The eventual breakup left Mr. Allen’s business and personal life in tatters. Speaking from the Kabul residence of a friend—where he has been living in an attic stocked with weapons, whiskey and a portable piano for almost a year—Mr. Allen said he was made a scapegoat when the militia fell out of favor.
He declined the U.S. embassy’s offer to help him leave the country.
Write to Jessica Donati at Jessica.Donati@wsj.com