WASHINGTON -- The senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan says the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country by the end of 2014 is proceeding on schedule.
Marine General John Allen, testifying before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee on March 20, said the international coalition is handing security responsibilities over to Afghan forces despite a shooting spree last week allegedly by a U.S. soldier that left 16 Afghan civilians dead, and widespread unrest over the burning of Korans on a U.S. military base.
"We remain on track to ensure that Afghanistan will no longer be a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and will no longer be terrorized by the Taliban," Allen said.
The current U.S. plan calls for a drawdown of 23,000 troops by the end of September and a complete withdrawal by December 2014, when Afghan forces will take control of the country's security.
Opinion polls show that an increasing number of Americans want the remaining 90,000 U.S. troops now in the country to come home immediately.
Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he was at "the end of the rope" over civilian deaths, and demanded that U.S. troops leave local villages.
But Allen painted an optimistic picture to the committee in terms of NATO progress and the readiness of Afghan forces. They "are better than we thought they were," in combat and in terms of their confidence, he said.
He said that U.S. and NATO operations over the past winter have "seriously degraded the Taliban's ability to mount a major spring offensive."
As a result, he said, when the traditional spring fighting season begins, Taliban fighters will "come back to find many of their [weapons] caches empty, their former strongholds untenable, and a good many of their foot soldiers absent or unwilling to join the fight."
But not all of the general's comments were upbeat. Allen said Al-Qaeda still carried out deadly attacks on NATO troops from havens across the Pakistan border, and he predicted that the Taliban would likely use "high-profile attacks" to try and regain lost ground.
"We know that we face long-term challenges as well. We know that Al-Qaeda and other extremist networks, the very same networks that kill Afghan and coalition troops every day, still operate with impunity across the border in Pakistan," Allen said.
"We know that the Taliban remain a resilient and a 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 [improvised explosive devices]."
Allen also said that neighboring Iran "continues to support the [Afghan] insurgency and fuels the flames of violence."
Members of the Congressional committee were divided on their view of the U.S. timetable for withdrawal. The senior Democrat on the panel, Adam Smith (Washington), is among those pressing for a faster withdrawal. He urged the military panel to "accelerate the plans [NATO] has already made" for withdrawal.
But committee Chairman Howard McKeon (Republican-California) urged caution as Washington weighs the withdrawal of U.S. forces, arguing that with "our eyes on the exit" it may be difficult for the Americans to achieve their goals.
With AP reporting