WASHINGTON: A US general's appeal for maintaining military engagement in Afghanistan echoed in empty galleries as the Senate Armed Services Committee continued its hearing on the situation in the war-torn country.

“The room is almost empty,” observed Senator Lindsey Graham as Gen Joseph Dunford, who commands US and international forces in Afghanistan, warned that a complete withdrawal from Kabul would be a disaster.

“Withdrawal, in my mind, means abandoning the people of Afghanistan, abandoning the endeavour we've been on for the last decade, and providing Al Qaeda the space within which to plan and conduct operations against the West,” he said.

Senator Graham, however, pointed to the empty press and audience seats in the hearing room and said: “I remember when all these rows were full with people ... everybody was hanging on every word about Afghanistan.”

The committee's chairman Senator Carl Levin agreed and blamed the media for this lack of interest.

“Unfortunately, the American people rarely read about positive developments in Afghanistan,” Mr Levin said. “Instead, the media focus almost exclusively on negative incidents, depriving the American people of the sense of accomplishment that they would receive if they were provided a balanced view. Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican, noted that people in Afghanistan had a better understanding of the situation. “While the American people are not being given the entire picture of the success story there the Afghan people see it on the ground,” he said.

In a recent Gallup survey, 49 per cent Americans said they believed the United States made a mistake sending troops to fight in Afghanistan, 48pc said it did not while 3pc had no opinion.

In another survey by Pew International, 52pc said they believed the United States had mostly failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan, 38 said it had mostly succeeded while 10pc had no views.

At the Senate hearing, lawmakers reminded Americans that the war in Afghanistan was not over yet and that they still had almost 36,000 US troops in that country. More than 2,200 Americans have been killed there and thousands more wounded.

This was not the time to talk about US withdrawal from Afghanistan, they argued.

Last month, President Barack Obama told his Afghan counterpart that he would withdraw all his troops from Afghanistan if Kabul failed to sign a security deal with Washington for legalising future US troop deployments.

Gen. Dunford said he would feel comfortable with a residual force of between 8,000 and 12,000 troops to assist Afghan forces after 2014. The United States would provide two-thirds of those troops and also would keep an additional several thousand forces in Afghanistan to conduct counter-terrorism operations, he said.

Responding to his remarks, Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, complained that the general was proposing an open-ended war that most Americans did not want.“Senator, I would assess that if we don't stay there, continue the job of growing the Afghan forces, so they can replace us in providing security in Afghanistan, we'll actually have a good fight,” Gen. Dunford replied. Asked to identify the latest date for keeping US forces in Afghanistan without a new agreement, Gen. Dunford said: “I wouldn't do anything different between now and July. ... Beginning in July, I think we have manageable risk during the months of July and August.”

And then he would assess the risk of an orderly withdrawal, “which begins to be high in September,” he said.

Legally, the 33,600 US forces still deployed are covered by an existing status-of-forces document signed after 9/11. The agreement has no expiration date and prevents US military personnel from being prosecuted under Afghan law.

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