Nominee Questions Pakistan’s Battle Plan
By Julian E Barnes for The Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON—The Marine general chosen by President Barack Obama to lead the Afghanistan war raised doubts about Pakistan’s willingness to go after militants who cross the Afghan border to attack U.S. and allied troops.
In a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. John Allen also said he believed that the Afghan insurgency’s momentum has been halted and even reversed in key parts of the country, and backed Mr. Obama’s troop drawdown plans.
But Pakistan, as a haven for militants, looms large over the war in Afghanistan. Gen. Allen said Pakistan continues to “hedge” against a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by supporting anti-American militant groups, including the Haqqani network.
The statements were a rare public show of military skepticism about Pakistan’s intentions, reflecting the military’s increasing view that relations with Pakistan are deteriorating.
Gen. Allen, deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, argued that it would be ultimately in Islamabad’s interest to expel militant groups from their sanctuaries in Pakistan.
“We will encourage and will continue to encourage our Pakistani friends to bring pressure to bear upon those safe havens,” he said. “It’s not just good for the outcome of our strategy and for the president’s vision on the outcome in Afghanistan; it’s good for Pakistan as well.”
Appearing alongside Gen. Allen, Adm. William McRaven, nominated to lead Special Operations Command, also said Pakistan is unlikely to move against the frontier militant havens anytime soon.
The admiral oversaw the Navy SEAL team that last month killed Osama bin Laden at his hideout in a Pakistani garrison town.
The officers’ testimony shined a light on the fragile state of U.S.-Pakistan relations, which have grown combative in the wake of the bin Laden raid.
Military leaders have made plain they are displeased with the declining cooperation by Pakistan, but insist the U.S. can’t walk away from the relationship.
“We’re giving them $4 billion,” said Sen. Scott Brown (R., Mass.). “And yet sometimes we don’t know if they’re in or they’re out, are they with us or [are] they not?”
After Adm. McRaven said Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is likely hiding in Pakistan, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) demanded Pakistan hand him over.
Pakistani officials have said limited military capacity—not lack of will—is inhibiting their operations against militant groups.
Gen. Allen said he backs President Obama’s decision to pull 10,000 troops out of Afghanistan this year, and the remaining 23,000 surge troops by the end of next summer. After the drawdown, the U.S. would still have 68,000 troops in the country, he said.
But he acknowledged that the military didn’t recommend a drawdown schedule as aggressive as the one Mr. Obama chose.
Under questioning from Sen. Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.), a critic of the Obama administration’s drawdown plan, Gen. Allen suggested that if conditions deteriorate he would advise Mr. Obama to alter the plan.
“It is my responsibility to the chain of command and to our commander-in-chief to ensure—should I be concerned about the progress or the execution of the campaign—that I so advise the chain of command,” he said.
Neither the Afghan Taliban nor the Haqqani network has directly targeted the Pakistani government. And Islamabad remains wary of a hasty U.S. withdrawal and sees the militant networks as potential future allies in Afghanistan.
Gen. Allen said even as troops leave Afghanistan, the military would continue to implement its current counterinsurgency strategy, which is aimed at protecting civilians from the insurgents while helping the government extend its reach and legitimacy.
Sen. Graham asked if Gen. Allen would have enough forces to continue that strategy, which requires large numbers of troops to secure population centers.
“How can we maintain counterinsurgency if all the surge forces have gone?” Sen. Graham asked.