Petraeus: Afghan war gains enable US troop cuts

WASHINGTON (AP) — Amid signs of deepening war weariness among Americans, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Tuesday he will soon recommend a plan for beginning troop reductions, while embracing President Barack Obama’s goal of pursuing a long-term military partnership with the Afghan government.

In a four-hour Senate hearing that was his first since taking command in Kabul last summer, Army Gen. David Petraeus said the tide is turning in the war despite persistent questions about the durability of the Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai and the commitment of neighboring Pakistan to keep militants at bay.

Several Republicans said they worry that the Obama administration is sending mixed signals about when the U.S. will leave Afghanistan. Several cited a new Washington Post-ABC poll that said nearly two-thirds of Americans consider the war no longer worth fighting.

In his assessment of the war, Petraeus said that much of the Taliban’s battlefield momentum has been halted, putting the U.S. on course to begin pulling out troops in July and shifting security responsibility to the Afghans.

Petraeus cautioned that security progress is still “fragile and reversible,” with much difficult work ahead as the Taliban launch an expected spring offensive. With tougher fighting ahead this spring and summer, it seems likely that the first troops to be withdrawn in July will be support forces like cooks and clerks, not combat troops.

Petraeus said he has not yet decided how many troops he will recommend that Obama withdraw in July. The U.S. has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and its international partners have about 40,000.

“The momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas,” Petraeus said. “However, while the security progress achieved over the past year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible.”

Petraeus cited recent battlefield progress, but also expressed concern that Congress was not providing enough money for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to ensure that military successes are translated into economic and political advances. He also cited a troublesome but still modest effort by Iran to undercut U.S. efforts in Afghanistan by arming, financing and training the Taliban.

Several lawmakers who have traveled to Afghanistan in recent months seconded Petraeus’ optimism, citing military progress in Afghanistan’s restive south. Several former Taliban strongholds there are now under the control of Afghan and coalition forces, although the Taliban remains a deadly and efficient killer in mostly small-scale attacks or assassinations.

Some lawmakers also were unnerved by that same poll, which found that the share of Americans who say the war is no longer worth fighting rose from 44 percent in late 2009 to 64 percent in the poll conducted last week.

Petraeus acknowledged the growing opposition.

“I think it is understandable that the American people could be frustrated that we’ve been at this for 10 years and, you know, we haven’t won yet,” he said.

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