WASHINGTON - The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is facing an impatient and frustrated Congress, balancing his troops' solid progress in combat with worries about Kabul government corruption, an expected Taliban resurgence this spring and the slow development of Afghan security forces.
Gen. David Petraeus on Tuesday was to deliver his first formal assessment to Congress, returning to Washington for the first time since he took over as battlefield commander nine months ago. And he is expected to tell lawmakers that forces can begin to withdraw this summer as planned.
The Taliban's momentum "has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas,'' Petraeus said in prepared testimony obtained by The Associated Press. He said that success, while fragile, will allow officials to recommend that the U.S. and NATO begin shifting control of several provinces to the Afghan security forces this spring.
He is warning, however, that the substantial military gains there could be jeopardized unless Congress provides adequate funding to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide economic development, governance and other civilian assistance.
"I am concerned that levels of funding for our State Department and USAID partners will not sufficiently enable them to build on the hard-fought security achievements of our men and women in uniform,'' he said in the testimony prepared for the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, said Petraeus will probably face tough questions about corruption in President Hamid Karzai's government as well as the ongoing struggle to get Pakistan to take on insurgents along the border.
Petraeus, who met with President Barack Obama on Monday, has made it clear that the U.S., Afghan and allied forces have been able to oust the Taliban from historical strongholds, particularly in the south. And he will probably begin to sketch out how the Afghan forces can slowly begin taking control in more stable locales as U.S. troops shift to still precarious regions.
"The situation on the ground will almost certainly be the most promising part of the story that Gen. Petraeus can tell," said Karl F. Inderfurth, a former senior State Department diplomat for South Asia. He said other difficult struggles will determine success, including the reconciliation process with more moderate Taliban, establishment of a more capable government and the effort to persuade the Afghan people.
A topic of continued debate will be the militants' safe havens along the mountainous Pakistan border, and Islamabad's reluctance to move into insurgent strongholds in North Waziristan, where senior al-Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden, are rumored to be hiding.
Members of Congress, meanwhile, will roll out a resolution calling for Obama to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan either in 30 days or no later than Dec. 31, 2011. While the measure has failed in the past and is almost certain to fail again, the debate will underscore Congress' impatience with the war in the face of increasing budget pressure.
Petraeus carries a lot of weight with lawmakers who give him a good deal of credit for turning around the war in Iraq and beginning the withdrawal of combat forces there.
He was last in the Oval Office in June, when Obama fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal and turned to Petraeus as an emergency replacement. Petraeus left for Kabul immediately and has made a point of staying out of the political spotlight until now.