Afghan war commander Gen. John Allen on Thursday pushed back for the first time at suggestions that the U.S. withdraw more than 23,000 troops from Afghanistan this year, laying down a marker of sorts as the debate over future U.S. troop levels heats up.
Allen, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, was quick to caution that he needed to conduct more analysis before making a formal recommendation to President Obama. He said he was unlikely to present those findings to the White House until sometime this fall or winter.
"My opinion is that we will need significant combat power in 2013," Allen said in response to repeated questioning by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Sixty-eight thousand is a good 'going-in' number, but I owe the president some analysis on that."
At issue is the future size of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The military is set to withdraw the last 23,000 of the 33,000 surge troops from Afghanistan by this fall, leaving open the question of when the remaining 68,000 troops should return home.
Some in the Obama administration believe that tens of thousands of those remaining troops should withdraw later this year. Senior military commanders, speaking on background, have consistently argued that no additional troops should leave in 2012, in part to help the U.S. and its allies safeguard recent security gains through next summer's fighting season. Allen's comments made clear that he shares that belief.
The testimony comes as the Afghan war debate, long dormant, has begun to intensify because of U.S. weariness with the long conflict. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 60 percent of the country feel the war is no longer worth fighting and that Republican support, for years higher than that of the country as a whole, had fallen sharply.
On the ground in Afghanistan, meanwhile, the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai reacted furiously to U.S. failures like the massacre of 16 civilians earlier this month, allegedly by an American soldier.
Formal charges against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the sole suspect in the shootings, are expected to come on Thursday or Friday. But it's far from clear that will mollify Karzai, who reacted to the shootings by calling for American troops to withdraw from small outposts and likening the U.S. to a "demon."
Allen has to walk a careful line when it comes to Karzai, making clear to skeptical lawmakers that he wouldn't accept such a tongue-lashing from Karzai while simultaneously not doing anything that would sever the already-fragile U.S. relationship with the mercurial Afghan leader or make it harder to work with him.
During Thursday's hearing, Allen said he understood how Karzai's frustration and anger could have led him to use such harsh language, but pushed back at it all the same.
"I reject the use of the word 'demon,' " Allen said. "And I reject the equivalence of our forces with the Taliban in the same sentence."
Allen also rebuffed Karzai's long-standing accusations that American night raids - targeted missions, normally carried out by U.S. commandos designed to kill or capture specific militants - had caused significant Afghan civilian casualties. Allen argued that 83 percent of those raids had found their targets, while less than 1.5 percent caused civilian casualties. The raids, he indicated, were a vital part of the overall U.S. war effort and would not be discontinued anytime soon.
In two days of hearings on Capitol Hill, Allen - who hadn't testified since his initial confirmation hearings last year - showed skill in deflecting politically charged questions and staunchly defending the current American war strategy in Afghanistan. Whether he will be successful in tamping down political opposition to the war, both in the U.S. and Afghanistan, remains to be seen.