WASHINGTON – The Marine general expected to carry out President Barack Obama's order to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July said Tuesday he supports the plan but cautioned that successfully winding down the war will require new progress on a wide front, including more help from allies and less Afghan corruption.
Lt. Gen. John R. Allen avoided offering a detailed analysis of the president's troop withdrawal plan. The plan takes a riskier approach than U.S. military commanders had recommended and is opposed by some Republicans.
"I support the president's decision and believe that we can accomplish our objectives," he told a Senate committee hearing.
At the same time, Allen said in response to a question that the schedule set by the president is "a bit more aggressive than we had anticipated."
Allen said details of how to begin executing the Obama plan are being worked out. He will have wide latitude in that effort, since Obama did not set a minimum number of troops to be pulled out in July. He required only that 10,000 be gone by the end of the year and that another 23,000 be home by September 2012.
Allen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering his nomination to succeed Army Gen. David Petraeus as commander of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan. Allen is expected to easily win confirmation; the committee's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he hoped it would happen this week.
At the same hearing, Navy Vice Adm. William McRaven, the nominee to be the next commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, underlined the severity of the problem of Pakistani havens for extremist groups such as the Haqqani network, whose fighters move back and forth across the border to attack U.S. and Afghan forces.
McRaven said he and Allen both believe the Pakistani government could, if it chose, do more to alleviate the problem.
"It is both a capacity issue for the Pakistanis and I think potentially a willingness issue," McRaven said.
Allen's move to Kabul is part of a broader turnover of top military and civilian leaders of the war effort. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is retiring on Thursday, to be replaced by CIA director Leon Panetta, and the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, is about to be relieved by veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker.
The Pentagon tentatively plans to make the switch from Petraeus to Allen in mid-July. Allen was Petraeus' deputy at U.S. Central Command. The two will again be working closely together if, as expected, Petraeus wins Senate confirmation to be the next CIA director.
It will fall to Allen, as the senior commander in Afghanistan, to execute the Obama plan. Allen said he believed it would not stop progress toward winding down the war, in part because the drawdown will coincide with a boost in the number of Afghan security forces, although he also cited a concern that U.S. international partners in Afghanistan have not answered the call for more troops to help train Afghan soldiers and police.
He said he is 480 trainers short, and also needs 200 more military teams to act as mentors to Afghan forces.
Allen said the drawdown will impress on Afghan leaders that they must urgently grow the number and capabilities of their own security forces to take over as U.S. troops leave. All foreign combat forces are to be gone by the end of 2014.
As the Afghan security forces continue to expand, he said, the shortage of trainers will be more difficult to overcome. And Allen said that filling the gap would be critical to the success of the overall war effort, now in its 10th year.
A leading critic of Obama's withdrawal decision, Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the drawdown schedule poses unnecessary risks to U.S. troops and the security gains they have achieved over the past year.
"At the moment when our troops could finish our main objective and begin ending our combat operations in a responsible way, the president has now decided to deny them the forces that our commanders believe they need to accomplish their objective. I hope I am wrong," McCain said.
The Arizona Republican asked Allen whether Obama's decision will make his job harder or easier. Allen said he could not give a meaningful answer because he has not yet been confirmed by the Senate.
Allen also forecast an evolving U.S. and international military mission in Afghanistan that puts greater emphasis on targeting terrorist leaders — and, by implication, less focus on countering the insurgency through other means such as promoting good governance.
"We may well see that the development of (counterterrorism) will become even more important as time goes on," Allen said.
Asked about the outlook for a long-term U.S. military relationship with the Afghans, Allen said preliminary talks are under way and that it is "not beyond the realm of possibility" that the two sides will agree that some number of U.S. troops should remain beyond 2014 to advise Afghan forces, assist in the development of Afghan intelligence agencies and conduct counterterrorism operations jointly with Afghan troops.
He said there has been no discussion of the number of U.S. troops that might remain, and he said he saw no need for the U.S. to have any permanent military bases in Afghanistan.
Allen, who would get promoted to four-star general to take the job in Kabul, has been serving as the deputy commander at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.
Allen is best known for his role in the stewardship of the Anbar Awakening — the ultimately successful campaign by U.S. forces in western Iraq to encourage Sunni tribesman to turn against al-Qaida and align with American forces.
Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP