U.S. commander John Allen says Afghanistan transition plan is ‘on track’

Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told sometimes skeptical lawmakers Tuesday that the United States is "on track" to achieve its goals for stabilizing Afghanistan and preventing it from becoming a haven for terrorism. International forces are still planning to withdraw over the next two years, despite numerous high profile setbacks that have rattled confidence in the mission these past few weeks.

"We remain on track to ensure that Afghanistan will no longer be a safe haven for al-Qaida and will no longer be terrorized by the Taliban," Allen, the Marine Corps general who oversees the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

"To be sure, the last couple months have been trying," Allen acknowledged, pointing to the recent Quran burnings episode, the subsequent attacks by Afghan security forces that killed 13 foreign troops, and the massacre early last week of 16 Afghan civilians allegedly by a U.S. soldier. "Each of these events is heart wrenching."

But, Allen assured lawmakers, the overall relationship between foreign and Afghan forces remains solid. The international coalition is "well along" in making progress in the transition plan, which calls for training Afghan national security forces to take the lead in securing their own country by the end of 2014.

Lawmakers raised numerous questions about the transition plan, with some voicing growing impatience with the United States still being in Afghanistan at all.

"Why are we still there?" an exasperated Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) asked Allen, who testified to the panel with the top Pentagon civilian policy adviser, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller. "We're spending $10 billion a month we can't even pay for. ... When does Congress [hear] testimony, 'We have done all we can do? Bin Laden is dead.'"

But Allen held his ground. Under the current transition plan under way, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) "will move to the front," Allen responded. "If I think that [plan] is coming off the rails, Congressman, I will let you know that."

Other lawmakers questioned how Afghanistan can pay for the 352,000-member Afghan national security force. (Current Pentagon/ISAF plans call for training 195,000 Afghan army soldiers and 157,000 police.)

Does Afghanistan have the economic means "to support a force so large?" asked Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.).

In the near term, the international community will have to subsidize the force long after foreign troops withdraw from the country, Allen said. In the longer term, Afghanistan's mineral resources, when extracted and developed, may help pay for such a domestic force.

Allen and Miller will face more questions on Afghanistan when they appear before the Senate's Armed Services panel on Thursday.

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