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Top US commander in Afghanistan says mission on track despite recent setbacks
WASHINGTON (AP) ' The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan says efforts to hand over security to the Afghans and wind down the decade-plus war are on track despite anger over a U.S. soldier's alleged massacre of Afghan civilians and the burning of Qurans.
Marine Gen. John Allen, in prepared testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, gave no hint of an accelerated timetable for withdrawing U.S. combat troops in the face of increasing political and public pressure to end the military mission. Opinion polls show a growing number of Americans say the United States should bring home the 90,000 troops now in the country. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last week he was at "the end of the rope" over the civilian deaths, and demanded that U.S. troops leave local villages.
The current U.S. plan calls for a drawdown of 23,000 American troops by the end of September and a complete withdrawal by December 2014, when Afghan forces are to take charge of the country's security.
"I wish I could tell you that this war was simple, and that progress could easily be measured," Allen said. "But that's not the way of counterinsurgencies. They are fraught with success and setbacks, which can exist in the same space and time, but each must be seen in the larger context of the overall campaign. And I believe that the campaign in on track."
Allen's appearances before Congress ' he will testify before a Senate committee Thursday ' are the first since a suspected shooting spree by a U.S. soldier killed 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children, and the Quran burnings that touched off riots. The Associated Press obtained a copy of his testimony.
He insisted that the U.S. and its coalition forces are moving ahead in ensuring that Afghanistan doesn't revert to a terrorist haven and transferring the security lead to the Afghans. Allen said the forces are meeting the commitments spelled out in the overall withdrawal plan hammered out at the conference in Lisbon in November 2010.
In the past year, Afghan security forces have expanded from 276,000 to 330,000 and will achieve their goal of full strength before an October deadline. This will allow the United States to withdraw the remaining 23,000 American surge forces while pressuring the Taliban to reconcile.
But he acknowledged the recent setbacks, including the violence stemming from the Quran burnings. All told, 32 Afghans died in the riots and more were hurt. Sixty coalition troops from six countries have been killed since January. Allen said 13 have been killed at the hands of "what appears to have been Afghan security forces, some of whom were motivated, we believe, in part by the mishandling of religious materials."
He said the military was investigating the murder of "16 innocent Afghan civilians at the hands of a U.S. service member." Some in Afghanistan have questioned whether the accused service member, identified as Army Sgt. Robert Bales, acted alone, but Allen made clear he was referring to a single individual.
Allen will face a divided and war-weary Congress more than 10 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and nearly a year after the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, an achievement some lawmakers argue should have ended the U.S. combat mission.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, in a speech at the Reagan Presidential Library last week, urged caution in discussion of withdrawing U.S. forces before the coalition has secured its gains.
"We can still leave Afghanistan with our heads held high and the Taliban defeated. But it will take resolve and patience. As President Reagan demonstrated, Americans excel at both," said McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of House Armed Services Committee.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the panel, is among those in Congress pressing for a faster withdrawal.
"It is time to bring our troops home, and while the president has laid out a responsible path to do so, we should continue to look for every opportunity to accelerate our timeline," Smith wrote in an opinion piece in USA Today last week.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.