WASHINGTON — Facing a skeptical Congress, the top commander in Afghanistan insisted Tuesday that the United States is winding down the decade-plus war and doesn't intend to remain in the country indefinitely.
"There is no part of our strategy that intends to stay in Afghanistan forever," Marine Gen. John Allen told the House Armed Services Committee. It was 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 House panel, 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.
Allen gave no hint of a speedier drawdown in the face of increasing political and public pressure to end the mission. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last week he was at "the end of the rope" over 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 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.