(CBS/AP) WASHINGTON - Facing a skeptical Congress, the top commander in Afghanistan insisted on Tuesday that the United States is winding down the decade-plus war and has no intention to remain in the country indefinitely.
"There is no part of our strategy that intends to stay in Afghanistan forever," Marine Gen. John Allen told the House Armed Services Committee. It was his first congressional appearance since a U.S. soldier's alleged massacre of Afghan civilians and the burning of Qurans by American forces dealt severe setbacks to the fragile U.S.-Afghanistan relationship.
In his appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, Allen parried questions from war-weary lawmakers who questioned whether the United States should accelerate the timetable for withdrawing some of the 90,000 combat forces still in the country, and whether a projected Afghan force of 352,000 would be capable of ensuring the country's security.
Allen gave no hint of a speedier drawdown in the face of increasing political and public pressure to end the mission. Opinion polls show a growing number of Americans say the United States should bring home the 90,000 troops now in the country. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last week he was at "the end of the rope" over civilian deaths, and demanded that U.S. troops leave local villages.
The current U.S. plan calls for a drawdown of 23,000 American troops by the end of September and a complete withdrawal by December 2014, when Afghan forces are to take charge of the country's security.
"I wish I could tell you that this war was simple, and that progress could easily be measured," Allen said. "But that's not the way of counterinsurgencies. They are fraught with success and setbacks, which can exist in the same space and time, but each must be seen in the larger context of the overall campaign. And I believe that the campaign in on track."
Allen said by year's end he would assess the threat from the insurgency and the progress made by coalition forces before recommending further reductions in combat forces next year.
Allen insisted that the U.S. and its coalition forces are moving ahead in to ensure that Afghanistan doesn't revert to a terrorist haven and transfer the security lead to the Afghans. The forces, he said, are meeting the commitments spelled out in the overall withdrawal plan hammered out at the conference in Lisbon in November 2010.
"We have to remind ourselves, and the Afghan people, what the Taliban was really like when they were ruling Afghanistan," Rice said. "It was a place of lawlessness. It was a place where women were executed for minor violations of the harshest notions of Islamic laws. It was a place of civil war."
In the past year, Afghan security forces have expanded from 276,000 to 330,000 and will achieve their goal of full strength before an October deadline. This will allow the United States to withdraw the remaining 23,000 American surge forces while pressuring the Taliban to reconcile.
Allen acknowledged recent setbacks in his appearance, including the violence stemming from the Quran burnings. All told, 32 Afghans died in the riots and more were hurt. Sixty coalition troops from six countries have been killed since January. Allen said 13 have been killed at the hands of "what appears to have been Afghan security forces, some of whom were motivated, we believe, in part by the mishandling of religious materials."
He said the military was investigating the murder of "16 innocent Afghan civilians at the hands of a U.S. service member." Some in Afghanistan have questioned whether the accused service member, identified as Army Sgt. Robert Bales, acted alone,
Allen said that in addition to the criminal investigation, the military was conducting an administrative inquiry examining the command and control and the decision behind the assignment.
In his opening statement, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House panel, urged caution in discussing the withdrawal of U.S. forces, arguing that with "our eyes on the exit" it may be difficult for the Americans to achieve their goals.
"What's more, in the absence of sustained, public campaign to support the mission in Afghanistan from the White House on down many have begun to question what we're fighting for," McKeon, R-Calif., said in acknowledging the divisions in Congress and the nation.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the panel, is among those in Congress pressing for a faster withdrawal.
"The solution to this dilemma, that over time our large scale presence will have diminishing returns, is simple we should accelerate the plans we have already made. The NATO Lisbon Conference of 2010 laid out a realistic plan for transition. Our challenge now is to look for ways to implement it as fast as we responsibly can," Smith said.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan's vice president said Tuesday that any long-term military agreement with the United States will respect his nation's sovereignty and will be based on the interests of both countries.
Afghanistan and the United States are pressing to get a deal signed to govern the continued presence of U.S. forces in the country after 2014, when the majority of combat troops are scheduled to leave. But negotiations have come at a strained time for Afghan-U.S. relations. The comments by Karzai's first vice president on Tuesday echoed Karzai's vow that Afghan sovereignty must be respected.
"This strategic partnership, for which work is continuing right now, will be according to the national sovereignty of Afghanistan and based on the interests of both countries," First Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim told Afghans celebrating the Persian new year, or Nowruz, in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.