U.S. commander in Afghanistan to appear before wary Congress
By Ernesto Londoño and Richard Leiby,
KABUL — When Gen. John R. Allen testifies Tuesday on Capitol Hill, he faces a daunting task: trying to convince lawmakers that they should resist the urge to sharply cut funding for the war in Afghanistan over the next two years.
After stumbles and setbacks that have kept U.S. diplomats and commanders in Afghanistan in triage mode for much of this year, that argument probably will be a tough sell. For Allen, a respected but fairly low-profile Marine, the role of public advocate is a relatively new one — and one made all the more fraught by the looming U.S. presidential election.
“You see in the chattering class here, even among military guys, a lot more talk saying enough is enough,” said retired Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, a former spokesman for Gen. David H. Petraeus, Allen’s predecessor. “What does two more years get us? Is there any hope that in two years we’re going to have a stable relationship with Kabul? A stable relationship with Pakistan?”
Those questions will loom large as Allen, who has commanded U.S. and NATO forces here since July, is sworn in before the House Armed Services Committee. Congress is drawing up the fiscal 2013 defense budget amid growing calls in Washington and Afghanistan to speed up the transition of responsibility for security to Afghan forces. Putting Afghan security forces in the lead sooner rather than later could give the Obama administration a pretext to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
At stake is whether U.S. commanders will prevail in keeping a robust force in Afghanistan after this fall, when the Obama administration has ordered troop levels to dip from the current 90,000 to 68,000. That, commanders have argued, would give them two more springtime “fighting seasons” to weaken the Taliban and allow U.S. and allied forces to continue training a substantial number of Afghan security force members.
But in a climate in which polls reflect public disapproval of the war, it seems more likely that those favoring a steeper drawdown will prevail.
Washington’s shaky relationship with Kabul has been tested like never before by the recent slayings of 16 civilians, allegedly by a U.S. Army staff sergeant. The incident follows last month’s apparently accidental burning of Korans by American troops.
Last Thursday, the Taliban announced that it was suspending peace talks with the United States, charging that Washington was being fickle. That same day, Karzai called on foreign troops to pull back from small outposts in villages, suggesting that their presence was doing more harm than good.
He also has repeatedly objected to night raids by U.S. troops. Karzai’s government has insisted that foreign troops be banned from entering Afghan homes and that American soldiers obtain search warrants before storming into the houses of suspected insurgents.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the Obama administration was preparing to allow Afghan judges to review night operations in advance, as a concession to Karzai.
But George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, said “no decisions have been made” on the night raids. “Discussions with our Afghan partners continue on this issue,” he said.
A senior U.S. official in Washington said the discussions were very preliminary.
The warrant requirement is “one option that’s being discussed that would shift the focus toward law enforcement. There’s a lot of work left to do. We’re not there yet. This is just an idea that’s being explored,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
Afghan officials have argued that Afghan troops ought to be put in the lead now, despite serious concerns about their readiness to fend off — let alone defeat — the Taliban.
“Afghan security is . . . something we want to take on as quickly as we can,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said in a recent interview.
Afghans from provinces where the Taliban continues to wield considerable influence said in interviews last week that they support Karzai’s position.
“People in the villages want the foreigners to leave,” said Muhammad Jamil, 57, a shopkeeper who splits his time between Kabul and Wardak province in central Afghanistan. “They come to our homes, they search our women.”
To be sure, there are Afghans who see merit in a strong military partnership with the United States. And Allen, who lacks the reputation and name recognition of his predecessor, Petraeus, has nonetheless earned the trust of many prominent Afghans.
Shukria Barakzai, a lawmaker who as the head of the parliament’s defense committee has met several times with Allen, praises him as sensitive to Afghan sovereignty concerns and the country’s Islamic culture.
“I greatly respect him,” she said. “He was one that was always trying to listen, not to ignore.”
Staff writers Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.
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