Petraeus Testifies On The Hill

The top commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday with this hopeful assessment. Petraeus says that, while some American soldiers will come home this summer, the war is a long way from over.

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The top commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, and he offered this hopeful assessment.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander, Multi-National Force, Afghanistan): The momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country, and reversed in a number of important areas.

SIEGEL: General Petraeus says that some American soldiers will come home this summer.

Still, as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the war is a long way from over.

TOM BOWMAN: General Petraeus said the so-called surge in American troops - an additional 30,000 soldiers and Marines - has pushed back the Taliban in their key strongholds: the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. More Taliban fighters are turning in their weapons, he said. More Afghan soldiers are being trained.

Despite the claims of progress, the general is working against the clock. The question is, is progress happening fast enough?

According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, a growing number of Americans are losing patience with the war.

Republican Senator John McCain asked Petraeus about the results of the poll.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Nearly two-thirds of Americans now say the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting, the highest proportion yet.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Up front, I can understand the frustration. We have been at this for 10 years.

BOWMAN: Petraeus said it was only last year that he got enough troops, enough American civilian advisers, and enough money to fight the Taliban and build up Afghan forces. McCain pressed the general on the consequences of following opinion polls and walking away from Afghanistan.

Failure in Afghanistan, Petraeus said, could mean a return of al-Qaida, the masterminds of the September 11th attacks.

Gen. PETRAEUS: That is where al-Qaida had its most important sanctuary in the world, and it had it under the Taliban. And Afghanistan, I think, would be an attractive location were the Taliban to control large swaths of it once again.

BOWMAN: Military officials doubt that many American troops will come home this summer, and Petraeus told senators he has yet to recommend a number to President Obama. For the most part, the senator seemed grudgingly to accept the long-term mission in Afghanistan.

According to the current plan, it won't be until 2014 that Afghanistan can take responsibility for its own security.

It was the newest members of the Senate who seemed the most skeptical. Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and former governor, was troubled by the amount of money being spent on Afghan security forces: about $11 billion this year, and another 12 billion next year if the Pentagon gets its way.

Senator JOE MANCHIN (Democrat, West Virginia): For $1 billion, we could do 100,000 state policemen - in my state, for one billion, and I - the cost is so enormous.

BOWMAN: Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, who appeared with Petraeus, said it's better to put that money toward improving Afghan security forces - the ANSF - than leaving 100,000 American troops there for years more.

Ms. MICHELE FLOURNOY (Undersecretary of Defense for Policy): It is much less expensive...

Senator MANCHIN: But it would depend...

Ms. FLOURNOY: ...to build the ANSF than it is to support our own continued involvement at these levels.

Senator MANCHIN: If I may...

BOWMAN: Another newcomer, Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, asked General Petraeus the question everyone would like an answer to: What does victory look like?

Senator SCOTT BROWN (Republican, Massachusetts): What's a win? When do we say, hey, we're there; we won; it's time to really go on.

Gen. PETRAEUS: A win would be an Afghanistan that again, can secure itself against the level of insurgency at that time, and that can govern itself, see to the needs of its people.

BOWMAN: That, Petraeus said, will take at least three more years. And even then, the general said, Afghanistan will still need some international help.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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