US commander says Afghan war is 'on track' despite recent turmoil

Afghanistan commander Gen. John Allen on Tuesday assured lawmakers the war in that country is “on track,” despite recent turmoil that has spurred increased calls for a speedier withdrawal.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Allen said the recent incidents, such as the killing of 16 Afghan civilians by a rogue U.S. soldier and the burning of Qurans, have been difficult, but are not derailing the war effort.

“To be sure, the last couple months have been trying,” Allen said. “But I assure you, the relationship between the Coalition and the Afghan security forces remains strong.”

Allen acknowledged that the decade-long war in Afghanistan has been difficult and costly, but said the military is ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for al Qaeda and the Taliban.

“I believe that the campaign is on track,” Allen said. “We are making a difference. I know this, and our troops know this.”

Allen’s testimony was his first public chance to convince Congress and the public that the United States should stick with its timetable to withdraw U.S. troops by the end of 2014.

The general rebuffed questions from lawmakers concerned about both a speedier withdrawal and keeping troops in Afghanistan indefinitely if conditions do not improve. He said the goal remains for withdrawal and a security hand-off at the end of 2014.

“There is no part of our strategy which intends to stay in Afghanistan forever,” he said.

Allen’s appearance on Capitol Hill comes after a turbulent period in Afghanistan. The burning of Qurans at a U.S. airbase in February sparked widespread protests and left 30 Afghans dead. Six U.S. troops were killed in the week following the protests, including two U.S. officers inside the Afghan Interior Ministry.

The killing of 16 Afghan civilians last week further inflamed tensions, and prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to say he’s at “the end of the rope” and compare American troops to “demons.” Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is accused in the killings, and has been transferred to custody in the United States, a move that also drew Afghan criticism.

The war faces declining support from the U.S. public, and there has been more talk that troops should be coming home now.

Allen emphasized the progress that has been made training Afghan soldiers, who could take the lead for security as early as 2013, calling their growth “dramatic.”

“I wish I could tell you that this war was simple and that progress could easily be measured, but that’s not the way of counterinsurgencies,” Allen said. “In the long run our goals can only be achieved and then secured by Afghan forces. Transition, then, is the linchpin of our strategy, not merely the way out.”

Some in Congress, including House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), have said that the Obama administration should speed up its timetable for withdrawal, which the administration says it does not plan to do.

“The solution to this dilemma — that over time our large-scale presence will have diminishing returns — is simple: We should accelerate the plans we have already made,” Smith said.

“The NATO Lisbon Conference of 2010 laid out a realistic plan for transition,” he said. “Our challenge now is to look for ways to implement it as fast as we responsibly can.”

Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), however, cautioned against a hasty withdrawal, saying he was concerned about the administration’s timeline, including President Obama’s plan to withdraw 23,000 surge troops this summer.

“These decisions by the president have made it increasingly difficult to build up trust and confidence with the Afghan institutions that will ultimately ensure that the security and political gains by U.S. and NATO efforts are sustained into the future,” McKeon said.

“In the absence of a sustained, public campaign to support the mission in Afghanistan — from the White House on down — many have begun to question what we’re fighting for.”

McKeon asked Allen if the White House has given him assurances that he would have the troops he needs in 2013 after the surge troops leave, a reference to reports that the Obama administration was considering a more rapid withdrawal next year.

“There has been no number mentioned,” Allen responded.

After the surge troops depart this summer, the United States will have 68,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan. The timetable for withdrawing those forces has not been decided, and Allen said Tuesday that the planning for post-surge withdrawal would not occur until after the surge troops were gone.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, McKeon said he was pleased by Allen’s testimony.

“There have been rumors to the fact that we were rushing out, and abandoning the 2014 date that they’d set,” McKeon said. “I think he put that to rest. He did not feel the administration was pushing him to do that.”

But for critics of the war, such as Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Tuesday’s hearing was an opportunity to grill the commander on why the U.S. military should remain in a country that “has never changed since they’ve been existing.”

“Gen. Allen, you, sir, are going to be candid with the United States Congress … as we are spending $10 billion a month that we can’t even pay for,” Jones said.

“The Chinese, Uncle Chang, is lending us the money to pay that we are spending in Afghanistan,” he said in reference to U.S. debt to China.

Defenders of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan asked Allen to make the case for continued funding of the war as the Pentagon faces deep budget cuts.

Telling Allen “you’re the best person to articulate,” Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) asked the general to explain why Afghanistan has made the United States safer.

Allen drew a connection to Sept. 11 and al Qaeda, saying that “with a stable Afghanistan, Americans are safer. With us in hot pursuit of al Qaeda, Americans are safer.”