WASHINGTON – The incoming head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Tuesday offered support for the president’s drawdown of American troops from that battlefield but also vowed to slow down those departures if the situation begins to deteriorate.

Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, nominated to take over for Army Gen. David Petraeus as the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, told members of the Senate that he believes the drawdown plan outlined last week offers him the time and flexibility to reduce the U.S. footprint in that country without jeopardizing hard-fought military gains.

“By beginning to withdraw now, it sends a clear message of urgency to the Afghans that they are ultimately responsible for their own security,” Allen said.

He also noted that even after 33,000 U.S. troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 2012, U.S. commanders will still have about 68,000 American troops in country, along with about 70,000 fully trained Afghan security forces and “tens of thousands” of other coalition fighters.

But he acknowledged the drawdown is more aggressive than what military commanders had hoped for, and pledged to ask for a slower withdrawal schedule if conditions on the ground merit one.

With his confirmation essentially ensured –- no senators have offered any public opposition to his appointment -- Allen’s confirmation hearing became another Capitol Hill sparring session on President Barack Obama’s withdrawal plans.

Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee asked multiple times for Allen to outline why he supported the withdrawal schedule, which would remove 10,000 U.S. troops by the end of this year and an additional 23,000 by the end of next summer.

Republicans on the panel questioned whether the moves would complicate Allen’s job and the military strategy there, and asked for explanations why the 2012 deadline is in September -– still within the anticipated fighting season in Afghanistan -– instead of a few months later.

Allen sidestepped those questions, but emphasized that he’ll have enough flexibility to decide how and when units leave the battlefield. Without offering specifics, he suggested that combat forces in still-contested regions and Special Operations forces might be among the last to see their numbers reduced.

Vice Adm. William McRaven, nominated to take over U.S. Special Operations Command, also voiced his support for the drawdown, saying he doesn’t anticipate it hurting or slowing down missions conducted by his troops.

“At the end of the day, we’re still able to put pressure on the enemy,” he said.

McRaven and Allen said they expected Afghan forces to begin taking the lead in more security operations over the next year, and called the 2014 target for a country-wide handover of those responsibilities realistic and achievable.

Allen also noted that violence in Afghanistan is down compared with 2010 levels, and he credited the surge of U.S. troops into the country for helping to secure volatile regions in the south and east.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called that progress “remarkable” but also “fragile and reversible” if troops are pulled out of the country too quickly.

Allen served as Deputy Commanding General for the II Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq from 2006 to 2008, and is credited in military circles with helping to bring about the “Anbar Awakening,” which persuaded Sunni tribal leaders to join the U.S. fight against Iraqi insurgents. He said that similar cooperation with the Afghan and Pakistani population will be key to success in that region.

Military commanders hope to put Allen into Afghanistan by mid-July, to allow Petraeus to retire and relax for a few weeks before starting his new job as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Both of those moves are contingent upon confirmation by the Senate.

A full chamber vote on the pending nominations is expected early next month.

Twitter: @LeoShane

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