By Larry Shaughnessy, with reporting from Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon
The top commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan insisted Tuesday that the war strategy remains "on track" even with recent setbacks that have sparked violence and Afghan anger toward the United States, such as the burning of Qurans and the killing of 16 Afghans, allegedly by a U.S. soldier.
"I wish I could tell you that this war was simple, and that progress could be easily measured. 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," Gen. John Allen told the House Armed Services committee. "I believe that the campaign is on track. We are making a difference. I know this, and our troops know this."
But perhaps the most moving part of the hearing came early on as Allen read a letter to the House Armed Service Committee from a Marine who died recently in Afghanistan.
"There will be a child who will live because men left the security they enjoyed in their home country to come to his," Sgt. William Stacey wrote to his family in a letter to be read in the event of his death. He was buried one week ago at Arlington National Cemetery.
That child, Stacy wrote, "will have the gift of freedom, which I have enjoyed for so long."
He concluded, "If my life buys the safety of a child who will one day change this world, then I know that it was all worth it."
Allen insisted that the United States and NATO need to ensure that the Afghan government and military can sustain gains earned over the past 10 years of war before the withdrawal of most of the international troops by the end of 2014.
"In the long run, our goals can only be achieved and then secured by Afghan forces. Transition, then, is the linchpin of our strategy, not merely the 'way out,'" Allen told the committee.
But committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, a California Republican, said he doesn't agree with the White House's plan for withdrawal.
"I remain very concerned about the president's decision last summer to speed up withdrawal of the surge troops from Afghanistan, as well as his original announcement, in his speech at West Point, for a date certain in 2014 to withdraw all U.S. combat forces," McKeon said.
Allen said there is no finite plan yet on how troops will be withdrawn through 2014 and insisted the White House has not dictated a withdrawal plan.
"There has been no number mentioned. There has been no number that has been specifically implied," Allen said. He said there is a "strategic conversation" that will take into account his and other commanders' recommendations.
"I am very pleased, frankly, with where we are in that conversation now," Allen told McKeon. He said as commander in Afghanistan the White House has always followed his best military judgment.
The top Democrat on the committee voiced his disagreement with those who criticize the 2014 deadline for U.S. withdrawal.
"We simply cannot say, well, we're never going to leave, we're going to stay because we're fearful that if people think we're going to leave that, therefore, gives them advantage," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington. "Truth is, it also gives them an advantage if we leave in the minds of the Afghan people that we're never going to leave.
"The effect of that is ... it undermines the confidence in the Karzai government, the confidence in the district and provincial governments, because they do not look like governments that can stand on their own."
Allen said Afghan National Security Forces have increased to 330,000 from 276,000 in the past year, and will reach full strength of 352,000 ahead of deadline. He testified that he believes that's an effective size. "I'm satisfied with the 352 number."
But the cost of supporting those troops could be an issue. The World Bank estimates that it would cost $8 billion but the United States is prepared to fund only $3 billion after 2014. Other NATO countries have pledged an additional $1 billion, leaving half the needed budget unfunded.
James Miller, principal Defense Department deputy undersecretary for policy, who was testifying with Allen, said the 352,000 number is likely temporary, but he couldn't say how much smaller the Afghan forces will get. "We expect that at some point in time, and that time has not been determined ... it will make sense to reduce that level to a long-term sustainable level. But the point of time that makes sense will depend fundamentally on conditions on the ground."
Tuesday's hearing came in the midst of a widespread budget-cutting effort in Washington. But Allen assure the committee such problems have not affected his mission.
"I have to thank the Congress of the United States, and through you, the elected representatives of the American people for having so resourced this campaign. We really need nothing. We want for nothing," he said.
Allen and several of the committee members mentioned but shed little light on two recent events that have strained the U.S.-Afghan relationship: the burning of religious materials, including some Qurans, and the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians in their homes, allegedly by a U.S. Army staff sergeant.
"Each of these events is heart wrenching, and my thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by the violence - coalition and Afghan alike," Allen said.
The military will conduct a separate investigation into the circumstances surrounding the assignment of the suspect in the shooting rampage, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, to the combat outpost in southern Afghanistan, Allen told the committee.
The administrative review, which is in addition to a criminal investigation, will be conducted by U.S. Forces Afghanistan. The investigation will consider how and why Bales was assigned, Allen said.
"It will look at the command relationships associated with his involvement in that combat outpost," he added.
Another contentious issue between President Hamid Karzai's government and the United States is night raids.
U.S. military officials consider Special Forces raids at night one of the most effective ways to attack Taliban leadership with less risk to civilians. But Karzai told CNN's Fareed Zakaria four months ago, "We want Afghanistan's homes, Afghanistan's villages to be protected, to be safe from such attacks. What we are asking for, in very specific and clear terms, (is that) no foreign forces should enter Afghan homes."
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said just last week after meeting Karzai, "Make no mistake about it: It is important that we continue these operations." But Panetta explained the United States is making changes. Allen echoed that at Tuesday's hearing.
"In just the last three months, we have come a very long way in creating greater capacity amongst the Afghans to conduct night operations in a very credible way," the general said. "Now, we're still heavily partnered with them, and we will be for some period of time, but ... all of our night operations are partnered with Afghan partner unit forces."
But Allen refused to comment on a Wall Street Journal report that the United States may soon have to seek a warrant from an Afghan court before staging a night raid. He said he didn't want to discuss details because "we are in very sensitive negotiations on night operations."
And, as is often the case in hearings about Afghanistan, Iran came up. Allen said that the United States continues to watch for Iranian interference in Afghanistan.
"My issue is with, primarily, in the area of security, and what we understand to be Iranian assistance to certain elements of the Taliban," he said. "It has not been dramatic, it has not been pervasive, but we seek to understand it and we have interdicted that assistance on a number of occasions, and we'll continue to watch it very closely."