WASHINGTON — Leaders of the House Armed Services Committee differed Tuesday on how quickly to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan, while the top commander of forces there said the U.S. campaign remains "on track" despite a spate of recent setbacks.
In the first hearing since the March 11 massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma said the U.S. has done "amazing work" fighting the war in Afghanistan — including killing Osama bin Laden last year and eliminating much of al Qaida's senior leadership — and that it's time to speed up the removal of troops.
"After 10 years of war, and great cost to both the American and Afghan people, it is time to find additional ways to put the Afghans in charge of their own fate as quickly as we responsibly can and bring our troops home," Smith told his colleagues on the committee.
But Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, the committee's chairman, called for patience and said he's concerned that the United States has its "eyes on the exits" after President Barack Obama announced plans to withdraw all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2014.
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"These decisions by the president have made it increasingly difficult to build up trust and confidence with the Afghan institutions that will ultimately ensure that the security and political gains by U.S. and NATO efforts are sustained into the future," McKeon said.
Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told the committee that "unequivocally ... 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."
But he said the past couple months of the war "have been trying," including an outbreak of riots that came after the burning of Qurans by American forces. And he described this month's apparent murder of 16 civilians by a Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier as "heart-wrenching."
"This campaign has been long, it has been difficult, and it has been costly," Allen said. "There have been setbacks, to be sure. We're experiencing them now, and there will be more setbacks ahead. I wish I could tell you that this war was simple, and that progress could be easily measured. But that's not the way of counterinsurgencies."
He added: "We are making a difference. I know this, and our troops know this."
Smith said the United States is safer as a result of having made "significant progress" in its goal to dismantle al Qaida. But he said that Americans "should be under no illusions."
"Being in a better position in Afghanistan is still finding yourself in a very difficult spot," Smith said. "Afghanistan is a poor country, with an uneducated population, plagued by groups that use violence to achieve their goals, and with a government that is often both incompetent and corrupt."
While Smith offered no specific timeline for an exit, he said the United States needs to "look for ways to push this process to go as quickly as we can safely do so." He said that a large-scale military presence in Afghanistan will have "diminishing returns" that the United States "should accelerate the plans we have already made."
McKeon called the killing of 16 civilians a "horrific incident" but said it was isolated. He said U.S. gains in the war "have now been called into question by some, due to the actions of a rogue few."
And he said the lack of long-term public support for the U.S. effort is hurting.
"In the absence of a sustained, public campaign to support the mission in Afghanistan — from the White House on down — many have begun to question what we're fighting for," McKeon said. "With friend and foe alike knowing that the U.S. is heading for the exits, our silence is likely viewed as a preamble to retreat."
The 10 members of the Washington state congressional delegation are split over how soon to bring home the 90,000 U.S. soldiers still in Afghanistan.
After the killings of the 16 civilians, Rep. Jim McDermott, a Seattle Democrat who long has pressed for a quick and orderly pullout, said he feared the shootings would inflame already-high anti-U.S. sentiments in the region.
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, Wash., called the shootings "jaw dropping" and "incomprehensible." But he said he did not believe the incident alone would become a catalyst for sweeping U.S. troops out of Afghanistan ahead of schedule.
Last May, Larsen and Smith voted against an amendment calling for an almost immediate troop withdrawal, save for small counterterrorism missions. They argued such a hurried pullout potentially could destabilize Afghanistan's fledgling security forces.
Two other Washington state House Democrats — McDermott and Norm Dicks of Bremerton — voted for the measure, which failed. Three Republicans voted no: Reps. Dave Reichert of Auburn, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Camas and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane. (Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, did not vote.)
In the Senate, Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are among those who have pressed for a faster pullout.
All members of Congress will get a chance to weigh in as they take up Obama's request to spend another $88 billion for the war in 2013.
(Kyung M. Song of the Seattle Times contributed to this report.)
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