A U.S. soldier stands accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians, the worst such attack in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently responded by describing the U.S. as a "demon" and demanding a faster U.S. withdrawal. Here at home, domestic support for the war has plunged to new lows, with Republicans as well as Democrats telling pollsters that the conflict is not worth its cost and that American troops should come home sooner than is currently planned.
But the Capitol Hill appearance on Tuesday of Marine Gen. John Allen, U.S. commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, passed with virtually no sparks of any kind. Few lawmakers cited the polls or raised specific demands for a faster withdrawal. There were only a couple of questions about Karzai's diatribes against the U.S., and Allen parried them by stressing that those were the comments of a government assuming more of the powers of a fully sovereign government.
The first reference to the Kandahar shooting, meanwhile, came nearly an hour into the hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. Shortly after Allen's brief answer - that there was a criminal probe into the alleged shooter, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, as well as an administrative probe into his full chain of command - many of the small number of journalists covering the hearing began streaming out.
The lack of any real fireworks at the hearing appears to have come about for two reasons. Despite the war's unpopularity, Afghanistan remains of such little interest to most voters that lawmakers likely saw little reason to publicly question a decorated and respected four-star general like Allen. Allen, for his part, showed surprising skill in deflecting potentially explosive questions and avoided giving any answer that could add fuel to the political debate over the war.
It was Allen's first appearance on Capitol Hill since his confirmation hearing last year, but Allen handled himself like a seasoned pro. Take an early exchange between Allen and Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon R-Calif. McKeon has been a harsh critic of the Obama administration's war policy, and asked Allen a series of questions clearly designed to elicit answers to bolster McKeon's contentions that the White House was ignoring military advice and pushing for a faster withdrawal than Allen and other commanders would prefer.
"Has the White House always followed your best military judgement?" McKeon asked.
"As the commander in Afghanistan, it has," Allen answered.
At the same time, the commander took pains to avoid giving the impression that he was simply parroting the administration's positions. When McKeon asked if the White House had given him assurances that he could have the forces he needed to get through the 2013 fighting season, the commander replied that he'd been "given assurances by the White House that we are in a strategic conversation."
Allen also tried to bat down recent media reports - criticized by many Republican lawmakers and cheered by many Democratic ones - that the Obama administration was kicking around various specific plans for withdrawing a greater numbers of troops than are currently planned. The stated White House policy is that 23,000 U.S. troops will depart this year, but recent reports indicated that more than 10,000 additional forces could depart. Allen insisted that he hadn't made any decisions yet on how many U.S. forces should be withdrawn in 2013 and wouldn't do so until the end of the year. And he said he hadn't had conversations with the administration about additional troop withdrawals this year.
"There has been no number mentioned," Allen said. "There has been no number that has been specifically implied."
Politics aside, there were several revelations that came during the hearing. Allen said 13 NATO troops had been killed by Afghan troops since the start of the year, a higher number than many officials had previously cited, even as overall violence in the country had fallen when compared to last year. He said many of the killings appeared to be motivated by Afghan fury over the recent U.S. burnings of several Korans, but the general didn't speak to the widespread belief inside and outside the military that such fratricidal attacks reflect the grim fact that many Afghan troops harbor extremist tendencies and quiet allegiance to the Taliban.
Allen also laid out, more expansively, the likely American shift of troops and resources from southern Afghanistan to the east. The commander said he hadn't made a final decision of the number or mix of troops to be reallocated to the east, but made clear that he saw the east as a source of growing concern to the overall war effort.
Senior U.S. generals like Allen have long argued that the east contains the main transit routes for the militants seeking to cross into Afghanistan from their havens inside Pakistan, as well as their preferred paths for reaching Kabul to mount new attacks there.
Allen also tried to bat down a Wall Street Journal report on Tuesday that the U.S. was weighing various options for giving Afghans greater say over the night raids - typically conducted by Navy SEALs and other special operations forces -- which are a great source of public fury in Afghanistan.
Allen said the reports were premature. He said he hadn't personally taken part in any negotiations over whether it was required that Afghans be given advance word of such missions or that Afghan warrants were needed before new ones are launched.
Taken together, those types of comments were a vivid reminder of the differences between the substantive war on the ground in Afghanistan and the political war over the conflict here at home. Army commanders routinely argue that wars can only be fought as long as political support remains. The hearing illustrated how completely Afghanistan has flipped that on its head. Support for the war has been steadily evaporating, but the war itself will grind on all the same.