Afghanistan Mission: Impossible?

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Army Photo/Master Sgt. Kap Kim

General John Allen

No, not the challenging military mission that 90,000 U.S. troops are now carrying out: hunting down and killing Taliban insurgents while training Afghan security forces to take over by 2015.

No, the more vital mission right now is the political one: next week, Marine General John Allen comes to Washington for the first time since he assumed command of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan last summer. He’s got a single goal: convincing the Congress – and the American people – that they shouldn’t accelerate the U.S. troop pullout.

The 91,000 troops now there are supposed to shrink to 68,000 by this fall. Nearly all are supposed to be out by the end of 2014. But the pace of that withdrawal — a gentle slope or precipitous cliff — hasn’t been decided.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ended a two-day visit to Afghanistan by declaring that there’s a “very good chance of succeeding” despite the recent massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by an apparently rogue U.S. soldier and assorted other recent distractions.

His optimism came as the Taliban halted preliminary peace whispers with the Americans, and as Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he wanted U.S. troops to abandoned their small village outposts and move back to larger forward operating bases.

Allen shares Panetta’s view. “The campaign remains on track — nothing has changed with respect to the campaign,” Allen told CNN earlier this week. “I think that the operational environment today supports the campaign as we have outlined it.”

But there are growing doubts about the wisdom of the campaign from both sides of the aisle. Allen’s two appearances – before the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday morning, and then its Senate counterpart Thursday – could end up being high-wire political theater, just like General Dave Petraeus’ 2007 performances on Iraq that salvaged the “surge” of U.S. troops and kept that war more or less on track.

King David, alas, is a tough act to follow.