The head of U.S. Central Command said Wednesday that the withdrawal date for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan is the beginning of a process and not a rush to leave the country. General David Petraeus likened the counterinsurgency campaign to a roller coaster, saying that the overall military effort is going in a positive direction.
Thousands of U.S. soldiers continue to pour into southern Afghanistan and soon, the military says, 98,000 U.S. troops will be in the country in an effort to counter Taliban insurgents fighting NATO and the Afghan government.
Even though NATO still is about 450 trainers short of what officials say is needed to build up Afghan security forces quickly, the military is already transferring security responsibilities in some parts of the country.
Army General David Petraeus, the commander of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that Afghan soldiers and police are sacrificing enormously for their country.
"Afghan forces are in the lead in Kabul and in a number of other areas and missions," said General Petraeus. "And they are very much in the fight throughout the country, so much so that their losses are typically several times U.S. losses."
U.S. President Barack Obama has set July of next year to begin withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan - a time frame that is criticized by some lawmakers.
Those who support the deadline say it is necessary to force Afghan leaders to take responsibility for securing their nation. Opponents say setting a date for beginning a troop pullout sends a mixed message to Afghanistan and regional allies like Pakistan.
Republican Senator John McCain:
"Right now, general, we are sounding an uncertain trumpet to our friends and our enemies," said Senator McCain. "They believe that we are leaving as of July 2011."
General Petraeus said it is important to emphasize to the people of Afghanistan that the United States has a long-term commitment to their country and that the withdrawal of U.S. forces depends on security conditions on the ground.
"That is not the date when we look for the door and try to turn off the light, but rather a date at which a process begins," he said.
President Obama has tripled the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since taking office. He has yet to decide how quickly the troops will be brought home. Meanwhile, many U.S. lawmakers say there are troubling signs in Afghanistan.
Fighting with the Taliban continues around Marja, which was supposed to be a model for the counterinsurgency campaign.
Some U.S. officials are concerned about Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who recently dismissed two senior officials who were held in high regard by the United States.
And a major civilian-military operation in Kandahar appears to be progressing more slowly than military planners had anticipated.
Despite these problems, General Petraeus says the military's timeline is on track.
"The conduct of a counterinsurgency operation is a roller coaster experience," said Petraeus. "There are setbacks as well as areas of progress or successes."
Petraeus said there is no hill in Afghanistan where American troops will plant a flag and go home to a victory parade. The four star general added that the trajectory of the war generally has been positive, despite delays and increasing casualties.