Afghanistan Commander Says U.S. Mission 'On Track'

The top military commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. It's his first public appearance before Congress since the killings of 16 Afghan civilians, apparently by a U.S. soldier. That incident and others, have caused new tensions between the U.S. and Afghanistan's government, and prompted some to reappraise America's strategy for the war. Nevertheless, Allen insisted that the strategy remains on course.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block. The commander of international forces in Afghanistan told Congress today that the mission is on track. Marine General John Allen testified that recent incidents, such as the shooting of Afghan villagers, should not cause the U.S. to speed up or to slow down the withdrawal of combat forces.

NPR's Larry Abramson was on Capitol Hill for the hearing.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: For General Allen, who only took over as head of coalition forces last year, the best way to understand the conflict in Afghanistan is to look at the numbers. But each number he cited told a different story. One number shows Afghanistan is still a dangerous place.

GENERAL JOHN ALLEN: Just since the first of January, the coalition has lost 60 brave troops in action from six different nations. Thirteen of them were killed at the hands of what appeared to have been Afghan security forces.

ABRAMSON: Who were angry about the apparently accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. personnel. But Allen told the House Armed Services Committee those numbers don't paint the big picture. Overall, the number of enemy attacks is down, he said, and Allen says the most important number to look at is the one that shows Afghan security forces are taking charge.

ALLEN: Eighty-nine percent of our operations are partnered operations today. There are operations on the ground as we speak right now in Afghanistan where Afghan units are in the lead with partnership - partnered operations with ISAF forces.

ABRAMSON: Which means that ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, should be able to hand over the mission to Afghan forces on schedule by the end of 2014. That's the current administration plan. No members of Congress questioned at all Allen's dedication to that goal, but they did question whether the White House had handed Allen a raw deal.

Republican committee chair Buck McKeon accused the White House of pursuing a contradictory strategy, fighting against the insurgents while, at the same time, telling the enemy when the U.S. will leave.

REPRESENTATIVE BUCK MCKEON: And yet 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.

ABRAMSON: McKeon also blamed the White House for not speaking out in support of the troops and for failing to highlight successes. Democrat and ranking member Adam Smith of Washington state said, no matter how well the mission is going, it has to end.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SMITH: Nobody on this committee, nobody in this country wants a permanent presence in Afghanistan.

ABRAMSON: Smith said, if the U.S. wants to keep the Taliban out of power and prevent al-Qaida from returning to Afghanistan, there's only one approach.

SMITH: Logically, we build up a force of Afghans who can make sure that that does not happen.

ABRAMSON: The general largely avoided the subject of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the alleged shooter, except to say Bales is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Allen did say that, in addition to the criminal investigation, the military will conduct a separate inquiry to analyze why Bales was assigned where he was. Bales was on his fourth deployment and apparently had problems at home.

President Hamid Karzai has cited this case in demanding that foreign forces stay out of Afghan villages. That seems to contradict U.S. strategy, but Allen says it's actually a positive sign.

ALLEN: The Afghan government is on a path toward sovereignty and we should encourage the voices of sovereignty. We should encourage actions within the Afghan government that seek sovereignty.

ABRAMSON: The most important number in Allen's testimony was 352,000. That's the number of Afghan troops scheduled to be in place by the fall of this year. Allen said he's confident that the force will be big enough to maintain security, but he said what really matters is the quality of those troops. That depends on U.S. efforts to train and advise those forces, so the U.S. role will remain critical for years to come.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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