Marine General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the U.S. will need to maintain “significant combat power” there in 2013.
That may mean keeping the 68,000 American personnel who will remain after Oct. 1, when the U.S. completes the withdrawal of 23,000 troops added in the surge of 2009, Allen said today at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“My opinion is that we will need significant combat power in 2013,” Allen said. “Sixty-eight thousand is a good going-in number, but I owe the president some analysis on that.”
Tensions between Americans and Afghans have cast doubt on the strategy of working closely with Afghans to prepare them for the planned departure of allied combat troops by the end of 2014. Conflict was fed by the burning of Korans in a trash dump at the biggest U.S. military base and by the killing of at least 16 Afghan villagers. A U.S. Army staff sergeant, Robert Bales, has been identified by the military as the suspect in the killings.
Those setbacks don’t change “the vital U.S. national- security interests that are at stake,” Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the committee, said in his opening statement. “Nor does it mean that the war is lost. It is not. There is still a realistic path to success if the right decisions are made in the coming months.”
Allen said he will conduct a “comprehensive” analysis from October to December before making a formal recommendation to the White House. That timetable would put off a decision on more withdrawals until after the November election.
“It’s the best way to identify the state of the insurgency, the state of the full” North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. forces, said Allen. He made the case for keeping combat forces in Afghanistan through 2014, as he did before the House Armed Services panel on March 20.
Allen acknowledged to the Senate panel that the last two months have been “trying.”
“Just since the 1st of January, the coalition has lost 61 brave troops in action from six different nations, and 13 of them were killed at the hands of what appear to have been Afghan security forces, some of whom were motivated, we believe, in part, by the mishandling of religious materials,”Allen said.
While Allen said recent events haven’t deterred Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s determination to maintain a long-term U.S. strategic partnership, the general said, “These incidents cannot be ignored. He has to explain these incidents to his own population.”
Allen said he opposed some of what Karzai has said about U.S. and NATO troops, such as calling them “demons.”
“I understand why in anger those words can come out,” Allen said. “I reject that term.”
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