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 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 With tougher fighting ahead this spring and summer, it seems likely that the first troops to be withdrawn in July will be support forces like cooks and clerks, not combat troops.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.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called on Obama to set a firm timeline for redeploying combat troops from Afghanistan. She said al-Qaida threats from the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere are more urgent than the threats from Afghanistan.
"New Yorkers, the American public and the American taxpayer have grown weary of the war in Afghanistan with good reason," Gillibrand said in a conference call with reporters.
Over the last decade, Americans have spent $336 billion to pay for the war, she said. Gillibrand also said Afghan leaders need to step up and take responsibility for making their country more secure.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leading supporter of the war, said he supports the administration's commitment to negotiating a long-term presence in Afghanistan, but he acknowledged that this goal can appear to contradict Obama's promise to start winding down the war by reducing U.S. troop levels in July.
"We're talking about leaving and staying all at the same time, and that can be confusing," Graham said.
Echoing that sentiment, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, predicted that the appearance of confusion would further erode support for the war.
"I worry that if there are mixed messages in terms of when we're leaving and how long we're staying or what our objective actually is -- and people are a little confused about that -- I think you're going to continue to see some erosion of public support of our mission," Cornyn said.
Addressing Petraeus and Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the Afghans also may find it difficult to reconcile the administration's objectives.
"On the one hand, we hear the president -- and Gen. Petraeus has repeated it today -- that we're going to start withdrawing our troops this summer in order to underscore the urgency and undermine the Taliban narrative that we're going to be there forever," she said. "On the other hand, both of you have said how important it is that ... we do need a long-term relationship. I would just suggest that I think that's part of the confusion that we see reflected in the polls about exactly what is our long-term strategy."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week while visiting Kabul that a U.S. delegation this week would begin discussions with the Afghan government on sketching out a relationship that would last beyond 2014, the target date for ending U.S. and NATO combat. In her testimony Tuesday, Flournoy offered no details but said the U.S. interest lies in providing longer-term training to Afghan forces.
"We are in the process of discussing what kind of parameters should outline that partnership," she said. "I should also add, it goes far beyond the military domain, to look at how we can support further development of governance, economic development and so forth."
She said this would not involve any permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.