Nominee for Afghan command OK with drawdown

Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington April 28, 2011. AP Photo

Updated at 11:53 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON - The Marine general tapped to take over as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan told Congress on Tuesday that he supports President Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. reinforcements by next September.

Under questioning by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. John R. Allen said he had no say in the internal deliberations that led to the decision announced by Mr. Obama last week to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops by the end of this year and as many as 23,000 more by September 2012.

"Although I was not a participant in those discussions," Allen said, "I support the president's decision and believe that we can accomplish our objectives."

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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.

A leading critic of Mr. Obama's decision, Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the drawdown schedule poses unnecessary risks to the security gains that have been made 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 Mr. 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, but he noted that the schedule set by the president is "a bit more aggressive than we had anticipated."

In written responses to the committee prior to his hearing, Allen warned 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 Mr. 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.

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Gen. David Petraeus, the man Allen will replace if 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 Mr. Obama's plan was more aggressive than he considered prudent.

Allen voiced none of that criticism in 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," he 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 Allen also predicted more tough fighting ahead.

At the same time, the Marine officer 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 Allen said that filling the gap would be 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, Allen 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.

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