The commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan said troop levels would not be reduced prematurely as the result of the local population’s anger over recent events.
Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that a New York Times report last week that the White House believes U.S. war efforts are producing diminishing returns is inaccurate.
"I don't agree with the article. I read the article. In fact, I know that the article was disavowed by people who were quoted in the article," Allen said.
"We are making progress, chairman, and we've made progress."
Allen said enemy-initiated violence throughout the Southwest Asian state declined 25 percent during the last 12 weeks of the current fighting season compared to last year; civilian casualties during the same period are down 74 percent.
"The growth of the [Afghan National Security Forces] has been dramatic," he said, noting that the Afghan army is moving to "full partnership with us within this comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign."
"And I remain committed to the campaign, and I remain optimistic that with the right kinds of resourcing and the comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign continuing as we currently envisage it, that we will be successful."
The four-star general stated that the goals in Afghanistan remain to ensure that Taliban insurgents do not return to power, and that Afghan government forces take the lead in the country’s security by December 2014.
The general’s testimony followed the accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. military forces—which were used by prisoners to send coded messages—and the shooting deaths of 16 civilians by a U.S. sergeant.
The incidents were a setback for U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, which are hinged on gaining support of the local population against the insurgents.
The Taliban called for beheading U.S. troops in retaliation for the Quran burnings.
Under questioning from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, Allen said the focus of current military operations is to consolidate gains in populations in the southern part of the country.
Once the gains are solidified, the focus of U.S. and allied military operations will shift to the east.
"I've not made a final decision in that regard," Allen said. "We anticipate shifting resources to the east in any case because it remains there that the principal counterinsurgency fight will ultimately be shaped in 2012."
Allen said that the Obama administration is committed to the current counterinsurgency campaign.
The Obama administration is considering a plan to downgrade the current military command in Afghanistan to a three-star special-operations command, possibly sometime around May when NATO leaders will meet in the United States.
Allen said he is currently working on what size forces will be needed in Afghanistan.
"We're going to spend the preponderance of the high up-tempo period of the summer of 2012 both continuing to fight the counterinsurgency, as I said, to consolidate our gains in the south, to expand the security zone around Kabul," he said.
Some 23,000 forces that were sent to Afghanistan as part of a surge in forces will be removed, and by October about 68,000 U.S. troops will remain along with about 40,000 international troops.
The Afghan army currently has 352,000 troops, he said.
Allen said a key element of the current strategy is to strengthen the Kabul government’s hold on the population centers in southern Afghanistan that are "the spiritual heartland of the Taliban."
Then "comprehensive" counterinsurgency operations will begin in the eastern part of the country.
"But my number-one goal will be to continue to deny the enemy access back into the key terrain of this insurgency, which is the Pashtun population—the Pashtun population in the south," Allen said.
The U.S. military continues to aggressively target al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan, Allen said.
"With us in hot pursuit of al-Qaeda, Americans are safer," he said. "So I believe that Americans can see that the results of the sacrifices that have been made by the American people to resource this war have in many respects a direct-line relationship to 11 September 2001, where, unaided, the Taliban provided safe haven to al Qaeda, which plotted and ultimately executed the attack upon the United States on that day from the safety of Afghanistan."
Allen said Iran is continuing to supply the Taliban.
Noting historical ties between the two countries, "my issue is primarily in the area of security and what we understand to be Iranian assistance to certain elements of the Taliban," he said.
"It has not been dramatic. It has not been pervasive. But we seek to understand it, and we have interdicted that assistance on a number of occasions. And so we'll continue to watch it very closely. We'll see. If it is modulated, if it is increased, or if it becomes more pervasive, then we'll have to take actions as necessary within Afghanistan to continue to check that process."