By Ken Dilanian, Tribune Washington Bureau –
WASHINGTON — The American war effort in Afghanistan is making progress despite recent setbacks, the top U.S. commander there told Congress on Tuesday.
“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,” Marine Corps Gen. John Allen told members of the House Armed Services Committee.
Allen’s appearance came after weeks of turmoil that has further diminished public confidence in what polls show is an unpopular war. He acknowledged what he called a “trying” couple of months, in which Marines were videotaped urinating on dead Afghan combatants; U.S. troops burned Qurans, apparently by accident; and an Army staff sergeant allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians.
Allen said those incidents have not impeded the ability of American troops to continue training and fighting with Afghan forces, part of a plan to have Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government take responsibility for security across the country by the end of 2014.
“I assure you,” Allen said, “the relationship between the coalition and Afghan security forces remains strong.”
The upbeat tenor of Allen’s remarks contrasts with recent assessments by the U.S. intelligence community, which raise questions about whether the war can be handed off to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. But Allen cited recent statistics that he said showed progress.
“For example, just in the last 12 weeks, the enemy-initiated violence across the country is 25 percent less than it was during the same period of time the last year,” he said.
Civilian casualties during that period were 74 percent less than last year, he said.
Allen said his forces “have seriously degraded the Taliban’s ability to mount a major spring offensive of their own. This spring, they will come back to find many of their caches empty, their former strongholds untenable and a good many of their foot soldiers absent or unwilling to join the fight.”
Allen acknowledged that significant hurdles remain, including that the Taliban and al-Qaida have safe haven in parts of Pakistan. Iran also is supporting the Taliban, he said.
“We know that the Taliban remain a resilient and determined enemy and that many of them will try to regain their lost ground this spring through assassination, intimidation, high-profile attacks and the emplacement of IEDs,” he said, referring to improvised explosive devices. “We know that Iran continues to support the insurgency and fuels often the flame of violence. We know that corruption still robs Afghan citizens of their faith in their government, and that poor governance itself often advances insurgent messages.”
Still, he said, “I believe the campaign is on track. We are making a difference. I know this, and our troops know this.”