WASHINGTON — Speed up the U.S. handoff in Afghanistan to avoid endangering the progress U.S. troops have made, lawmakers told the war’s top commander Tuesday, and by the way, slow it down or risk endangering progress, other lawmakers said.
But in his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday, Gen. John Allen told legislators of both persuasions the war strategy was “on track” and that U.S.-Afghan cooperation has risen to the status of a “brotherhood-in-arms that has been forged in battle over the years.”
The disagreement within the committee comes in light of recent high-profile setbacks that have thrown elements of the war strategy into turmoil. Recent missteps include the burning of Qurans by U.S. troops and the mass murder, attributed by authorities to a U.S. soldier, of 16 Afghan civilians.
“The last couple months have been trying,” Allen said, adding that of 60 NATO troops killed this year, 13 died at the hands of their supposed allies in the Afghan security forces.
But, he said, the United States is effectively building up the Afghan military and ensuring al-Qaida doesn’t base itself in the country again. The effort to employ 352,000 Afghan troops will be complete well before the October deadline, and Afghan units are improving, he told lawmakers.
Despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai calling recently for NATO troops to withdraw from villages, which Allen called “rhetoric,” both Karzai and President Barack Obama are committed to putting Afghan security units in the lead nationwide in 2013 and withdrawing NATO combat forces in 2014.
“The progress is real, and importantly, that progress is sustainable,” he said
But there was little agreement among committee members about how the United States should consolidate that process and win the war.
Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Cal., praised progress made by U.S. troops but said he was worried that Obama’s troop withdrawal time line strengthens the Taliban, who can wait out the United States in cross-border safe havens.
“The Taliban continue to operate with impunity out of Pakistan because they already know when we will be leaving and Pakistan has been unwilling or unable to address those safe havens,” he said in his prepared remarks.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who recommended speeding up U.S. withdrawal, assailed the idea that planning for the drawdown aids the Taliban.
A too-persistent U.S. presence could help insurgents, he said.
“Truth is, it also gives [the Taliban] an advantage if we leave in the minds of the Afghan people [that] we’re never going to leave,” because it undermines the popular legitimacy of the Afghan government, he said.
The issue didn’t break down along party lines.
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., asked Allen at what point the administration and military planners would admit that “we have done all we can do?” he said. “Bin Laden is dead. … The military has sacrificed enough. The American people have paid enough.”
Allen said he would deliver a plan next month to withdraw more than 20,000 remaining U.S. surge forces by October. Later this year, he said, he would make recommendations on force levels through 2014.
Pressed on future strategy, he said he has not decided whether to shift the war’s focus to Taliban strongholds in eastern Afghanistan. Securing major population centers in the south remains the current focus, he said.
“We have to consolidate the hold that we have on the south,” he said. “It is the spiritual heartland of the Taliban.”
Asked whether he’ll have the forces he needs — and whether the Obama administration has followed his recommendations in Afghanistan so far — Allen said the answer was yes.