- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Facing a skeptical Congress, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan insisted Tuesday that the United States is winding down the decade-plus war and has no intention of remaining in the country indefinitely.

“There is no part of our strategy that intends to stay in Afghanistan forever,” Marine Gen. John R. Allen told the House Armed Services Committee.

It marked his first congressional appearance since a U.S. soldier’s alleged massacre of Afghan civilians and the burning of Korans by American forces dealt severe setbacks to the fragile U.S.-Afghanistan relationship.

In his appearance before the committee, Gen. Allen parried questions from war-weary lawmakers who questioned whether the United States should accelerate the timetable for withdrawing some of the 90,000 combat forces still in the country, and whether a projected Afghan force of 352,000 would be capable of ensuring the country’s security.

Gen. Allen gave no hint of a speedier drawdown despite rising political and public pressure to end the mission.

Opinion polls show that a growing number of Americans say the United States should bring home the 90,000 troops now in the war-torn country.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last week he was at “the end of the rope” about civilian deaths, and demanded that U.S. troops leave local villages.

The current U.S. plan calls for a drawdown of 23,000 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,” Gen. 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 is on track.”

Gen. Allen said by year’s end he would assess the threat from the insurgency and the progress made by coalition forces before recommending further reductions in combat forces next year.

Gen. Allen insisted that the U.S. and its coalition forces are moving ahead to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t revert to a terrorist haven and to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans.

The forces, he said, are meeting the commitments spelled out in the overall withdrawal plan hammered out at a conference in Lisbon in November 2010.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a CBS “This Morning” interview earlier Tuesday, said U.S. policymakers must “keep our nerve” in Afghanistan.

“We just have to remember what Afghanistan was like 10 years ago,” when the Taliban were in charge, said the former Cabinet officer in President George W. Bush’s administration.

Miss Rice said the U.S. should focus heavily on training local security forces because “we can’t afford to leave Afghanistan to the Taliban and the terrorists.”

In the past year, Afghan security forces have expanded from 276,000 to 330,000 and are expected to achieve their goal of full strength before an October deadline.

This would allow the United States to withdraw the remaining 23,000 American surge forces while pressuring the Taliban to reconcile.

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