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General Allen: Despite Setbacks, Afghan Mission on Track

March 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Gen. John Allen said Tuesday that the American and NATO mission in Afghanistan was on track despite a series of serious setbacks, including Quran burnings at a U.S. base and a massacre of Afghan civilians, allegedly by an American soldier. Kwame Holman reports.
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GWEN IFILL: The American mission in Afghanistan will stay on track and on schedule, despite serious blows. That was the message the commanding general brought to Congress today.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: Thousands of Afghans celebrated their new year today at an ancient festival marking the first day of spring.

But, by Western calendars, there’s been little for Afghans or Americans to celebrate in 2012. In Washington, Marine General John Allen, commanding NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged as much at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

LT. GEN. JOHN ALLEN, commander, International Security Assistance Forces: I wish I could tell you that this war was simple and that progress could easily be measured, but that’s not the way of counterinsurgencies. They are fraught with both successes and setbacks which can exist in the same space and in the same time. But each must be seen in the larger context of the overall campaign. And I believe the campaign is on track.

KWAME HOLMAN: Allen conceded there had been setbacks, the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base that set off violent protests and killings, and now the massacre of Afghan civilians allegedly by an American soldier.

The General called the incidents tragic, but said the mission remains intact. The current U.S. plan calls for a drawdown of 23,000 American troops by the end of September and a total withdrawal by December 2014, as Afghan security forces, known as ANSF, take over control.

War-weary committee members asked for assurances that would actually happen.

REP. WALTER JONES, R-N.C.: As we’re spending $10 billion a month that we can’t even pay for, the Chinese, Uncle Chang is lending us the money to pay that we’re spending in Afghanistan. When does the Congress have the testimony that someone will say, we have done all we can do?

LT. GEN. JOHN ALLEN: I’ll be honest with you now. And I will be honest with that next administration. It’s my obligation, it’s my moral obligation to ensure that this force is resourced and that this force is committed into a strategy that I think will work.

And I believe this strategy will work. This campaign very clearly envisages that the ANSF will move to the front, the ANSF will have the lead, the ANSF will secure the population of Afghanistan.

And if I think that’s coming off the rails, Congressman, I will let you know that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Opinion polls show a growing number of Americans have lost faith in the Afghanistan mission and want the 90,000 U.S. troops there brought home now.

Some Armed Services Committee members shared that skepticism, but General Allen insisted the best course is to stick with the drawdown plan that’s already being implemented.

LT. GEN. JOHN ALLEN: We will still have combat forces in Afghanistan all the way to the end. They will be fewer in number, and the nature of the forces will be in many respects advisory in nature, but we can anticipate that the U.S. will be engaged in combat operations in support of the ANSF in the lead right to the end of 2014.

KWAME HOLMAN: The general had little to say about Robert Bales, the U.S. Army staff sergeant being investigated in the killings of 16 Afghan civilians in two villages.

Bales now is being held at the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he met yesterday with his civilian attorney, John Henry Browne.

JOHN HENRY BROWNE, attorney for Robert Bales: Well, he has some memories of what happened that evening before the alleged incident. And then he has some memories after that alleged incident. But he has no memories of what happened in between. And I’m beginning to question a lot of the facts that we have heard from the government.

KWAME HOLMAN: More details also emerged about Bales’ business background. Records show he was ordered to pay a $1.5 million judgment for securities fraud in 2003, a debt he still owes.