WASHINGTON President Barack Obama's top commander in Afghanistan will make recommendations about how quickly the United States should pull out of that long and costly war late this year, probably after November's elections, according to a timetable given on Tuesday.
General John Allen, who commands U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said he would present recommendations for Obama on troop levels in 2013 and beyond during the last three months of this year, after assessing the military campaign following the departure of 33,000 U.S. troops due by October.
"Before the end of 2012 I intend to provide, through my chain of command, to the president a series of recommendations on the kind of combat power that I will need for 2013 and 2014," Allen told the House Armed Services Committee.
"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," he said.
Questions have mounted about U.S. intentions in Afghanistan, including how quickly the remaining 90,000 troops will leave, as the Obama administration grapples with series of setbacks. They include the burning of copies of the Koran at a NATO base last month and the killing last week of 16 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children, blamed on a lone U.S. soldier.
Allen said 13 members of the NATO-led Western military coalition in Afghanistan have been killed this year in what appear to be "insider" attacks by Afghan security forces, representing about a fifth of the 60 Western military deaths that have occurred so far this year.
"Thirteen were killed at the hands of what appear to have been Afghan security forces, some of whom who were motivated, we believe, in part by the mishandling of religious materials," he said.
The burning of the Muslim holy book triggered violent protests across Afghanistan and brought a spate of attacks on Western soldiers by their Afghan peers.
Still, Allen insisted the United States and its allies remain on track to ensure Afghanistan will not once again be used as a cradle for al Qaeda militants.
The Obama administration says its focus on Afghanistan and its decision to beef up U.S. forces in 2009-10 have driven the Taliban out of much of its southern heartland.
Yet the recent calamities underscore the remaining challenges as the West tries to end a conflict that has dragged on for more than a decade without a decisive victory over the Taliban.
Obama, who is seeking re-election in November, is under mounting pressure from fellow Democrats who want to see a swift end to the Afghan conflict.
"After ten 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," said congressman Adam Smith, the committee's ranking Democrat.
Obama also faces attacks from Republicans who warn that a hasty exit will squander the success the troop surge delivered and undermine long-term U.S. security.
Republicans like Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the party's nomination to challenge Obama in November, oppose fixed timelines for withdrawing U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan.
A decision late in the year would allow U.S. commanders to size up the strength of the Taliban after the summer fighting season and allow more time to see whether nascent peace talks take hold.
Underpinning the NATO strategy for establishing stability as foreign soldiers withdraw is the build-up of Afghan police and soldiers, who are due to take over control of security across the country by the end of 2014.
The United States is expected to have a modest military presence beyond 2014, but Allen said no substantive discussions had taken place about that with the Afghan government.
NATO's transition plan has come under additional scrutiny after comments by President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials that have underscored many Afghans' abiding suspicion of the Western military presence.
A lawyer for the U.S. soldier suspected of killing the Afghan villagers last week said his client 'doesn't remember' the incident. The soldier, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, was whisked out of Afghanistan last week and is now in a Kansas military prison awaiting charges.
(Editing by David Storey and Christopher Wilson)