The top American commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, is wrapping up a week in Washington during which he previewed the Obama administration's coming deliberations about the decade-old war.
During congressional testimony, press briefings and public forums, Allen talked less about squashing al Qaeda and Taliban militants, and more about several issues that will determine how many U.S. forces remain there later this year.
Allen this fall will give his recommendation to the Obama administration on how many American troops should stay in Afghanistan after the last of 30,000 "surge" troops are withdrawn in September. Allen last week told Congress that about 68,000 U.S. troops is a good "going-in number" for the administration's fall talks.
But Pentagon officials reject the notion that Allen is firm on the 68,000 level, with top spokesman Capt. John Kirby saying officials reject "outright the story line that ... he wants to keep any certain number for any length of time."
Allen, for his part, told reporters at the Pentagon Monday that he is far from a point of knowing how many troops he will suggest Obama and Panetta keep in Afghanistan. "There is no way we can know that right now," Allen said.
But during his week-long Washington tour, Allen repeatedly returned to several issues that will shape his recommendation:
Self Defense. The Obama administration and the Pentagon are placing a huge bet on the fledgling Afghan military and police force. U.S. and NATO officials are frantically building a 352,000 troop indigenous security force that already is taking control of some regions. Pentagon officials say the Afghans are, as Allen put it, "better than we thought they'd be at this point, and better than they thought they'd be." The average Afghan "is not a reluctant soldier," Allen said at a forum in Washington.
Yet challenges remain. Lawmakers last week were skeptical about whether corruption among Afghan troops will undermine their success on the battlefield. Lawmakers and military experts warn about the nearly $8 billion NATO says will be required to pay for Afghan forces each year. Still, the more Afghan units are capable of leading security across the war-torn nation, the more U.S. and NATO troops can go home.
Eastern Watch. U.S., NATO and Afghan commanders are planning a major military offensive in eastern Afghanistan during the so-called "fighting season." Allen touted successes U.S. and NATO officials believe they have made in northern, western and southern Afghanistan over the last year. But the nation's east remains troublesome, and Allen made clear a "multifaceted" campaign is ahead.
Eastern Afghanistan is so crucial to long-term stability because it borders Pakistan, where Taliban fighters train and equip before moving into Afghanistan. Allied officials have been in talks with Pakistani military leaders, Allen said, with the aim of mending relations that wilted last year. Allen called those talks "successful," adding he wants to discuss joint operations against militant safe havens. How much progress Allen feels has been made in the east clearly will help shape his force-level recommendation. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution predicts the eastern campaign will be very difficult.
Relationship Status. U.S.-Afghan relations have chilled in recent months after a series of embarrasing events, including desecration of Korans, urinating on dead bodies and an alleged murderous rampage by a U.S. Soldier. Some Afghans have responded by killing U.S. and NATO troops, with others calling for their immediate departure. "There is an erosion of trust," Allen admitted at the forum on Monday, hours after two British soldiers were shot dead by an Afghan in an army uniform. For every such incident, the general said, there are "tens of thousands" of positive interactions between American and Afghan troops.
Allen painted the relationship as "very strong on the whole." That assessment will be tested in coming months as the two sides try to hammer out an agreement on night raids by U.S. forces, as well as a broader long-term strategic pact. And the content of both accords will play in the commander's recommendation to Obama and Panetta.