WASHINGTON -- The man tapped to take over as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan endorsed the size and pace of the more than 30,000-troop withdrawal laid out by President Obama last week, despite other commanders' worries that it's too risky and aggressive.
Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen said the drawdown will impress on Afghan leaders that they must urgently grow their own security forces to take over as U.S. troops leave.
In a questionnaire prepared for the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday on his nomination to take the command post, Allen warned, however, that success in Afghanistan is threatened by a significant lack of military trainers and mentoring teams for the Afghan Army and police.
Allen's hearing comes less than a week after Obama laid out his plan to withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of this year, and another 20,000-plus by the end of next September.
Gen. David Petraeus, the man Allen will replace if he is confirmed by the Senate, told Congress last week that he had recommended a more gradual withdrawal. Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Obama's plan was more aggressive than he considered prudent.
Allen voiced none of that criticism in the committee documents obtained by The Associated Press.
"I believe this reality sends an important message of commitment to the Afghan people, as well as a sense of urgency that the Afghans must take on more responsibility for securing their own country," Allen said in the questionnaire.
He repeated military assertions that the insurgents' momentum has been stopped in most of the country, and reversed in many key areas. And he predicted more tough fighting ahead.
At the same time, he acknowledged a number of critical challenges the U.S. faces in Afghanistan, including the lack of trainers. He said there is currently a shortfall of nearly 500 trainers, and a need for more than 200 mentoring teams for both the Army and the police.
As the Afghan security forces continue to expand, he said, the shortfalls will be more difficult to meet. And filling the gap, he said, is critical to the success of the overall operation.
Significant challenges remain in Afghanistan, Allen said, adding that the Taliban will try to recover lost ground in the south and southwest, and that insurgent groups like the Haqqani network will continue to wage high-profile attacks.
He also echoed ongoing concerns about difficult relations with Pakistan, which have dramatically eroded since the U.S. SEAL team raid in early May that crossed deep into Pakistan, infiltrated a walled compound and killed Osama bin Laden.
If confirmed, he said he would work to improve the military relationship with Pakistan and try to expand cross-border operations, particularly along the rugged eastern region, where militants routinely cross into Afghanistan to attack coalition forces.
In other comments, he said the military is still struggling to meet the needs of special operations forces in Afghanistan, particularly those training the Afghan police and working to stabilize villages. There aren't enough helicopters or aircraft for the special operators, and as the number of teams doing the training and stability operations grows, those needs will escalate. The teams, he said, will also need more surveillance capabilities and equipment to clear roads.
"I expect requirements for special operations enablers to increase as the conventional force footprint is reduced in Afghanistan," Allen said. A key priority, he said, will be to insure they have the equipment they need, especially so they can get injured troops evacuated quickly.
Allen, who would get promoted to four-star general to take the command job, has been serving as the deputy commander at U.S. Central Command in Tampa and earlier this month moved to become a special assistant to Mullen.
But he is best known for his role in the stewardship of the Anbar Awakening -- the ultimately successful campaign by Marines in western Iraq to encourage Sunni tribesman to turn against al-Qaida and align with American forces. Allen served as the deputy commanding general of Marine forces in the west from 20-2008.
If he is confirmed by the Senate, he will be the fourth general to take on the difficult command post in Afghanistan in the past two years.
And he will step into the complex task of realigning U.S. forces across the country as they slowly transfer security control to the Afghans. There are about 99,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Allen graduated with honors from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1976.