The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan insists the military can boost Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban, begin a troop drawdown this summer and fulfill President Barack Obama‘s goal of a long-term partnership with the Kabul government.
Facing a skeptical Congress and a war-weary public, Army Gen. David Petraeus is trying to build support for the continued and costly U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, telling lawmakers the conflict is turning around despite concerns about the viability of President Hamid Karzai’s government and the dedication of neighboring Pakistan to root out terrorism.
The general testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
His first day of Capitol Hill testimony Tuesday came as a new Washington Post-ABC poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans consider the war no longer worth fighting. He acknowledged the growing opposition.
“I think it is understandable that the American people could be frustrated that we’ve been at this for 10 years and, you know, we haven’t won yet,” he said.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the Afghans — and by extension the American people — may find it difficult to reconcile the Obama administration’s objectives.
“On the one hand, we hear the president — and Gen. Petraeus has repeated it today — that we’re going to start withdrawing our troops this summer in order to underscore the urgency and undermine the Taliban narrative that we’re going to be there forever,” Collins told Petraeus and Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy. “On the other hand, both of you have said how important it is that … we do need a long-term relationship. I would just suggest that I think that’s part of the confusion that we see reflected in the polls about exactly what is our long-term strategy.”
Petraeus said he didn’t see the objectives as “mutually exclusive strands of logic.”
“I think … it’s appropriate to talk about getting the job done,” he said. “I think it’s also appropriate to talk about the commencement of transition … while even beyond that, discussing the initiation of discussions on a strategic partnership with our Afghan partner.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week while visiting Kabul that a U.S. delegation would begin discussions this week with the Afghan government on sketching out a relationship that would last beyond 2014, the target date for ending U.S. and NATO combat. In her testimony Tuesday, Flournoy offered no details but said the U.S. interest lies in providing longer-term training to Afghan forces.
“We are in the process of discussing what kind of parameters should outline that partnership,” she said. “I should also add, it goes far beyond the military domain, to look at how we can support further development of governance, economic development and so forth.”
She said this would not involve any permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.
Petraeus said much of the Taliban’s battlefield momentum has been halted, putting the U.S. on course to begin pulling out troops in July and shifting security responsibility to the Afghans.
“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,” Petraeus said. “However, while the security progress achieved over the past year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible.”
With tougher fighting ahead this spring and summer, it seems likely that the first troops to be withdrawn in July will be support forces like cooks and clerks, not combat troops.
Petraeus said he has not yet decided how many troops he will recommend that Obama withdraw in July. The U.S. has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and its international partners have about 40,000.
The general cited recent battlefield progress, but also expressed concern that Congress was not providing enough money for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to ensure that military successes are translated into economic and political advances. He also cited a troublesome but still modest effort by Iran to undercut U.S. efforts in Afghanistan by arming, financing and training the Taliban.
Pressed repeatedly by lawmakers as to why U.S. forces should stay in Afghanistan, Petraeus said, “Two words, and those are 9/11,” referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He said the United States made a grievous error in abandoning Afghanistan once before.
“I think it would be a mistake, a big mistake, to go down that road again,” he said.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press