- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2009

Top military officials have rebutted Republican criticism of the administration’s timetables for Afghanistan, saying withdrawals are scheduled only to begin in 2011 and that a significant U.S. military presence will remain in Afghanistan for years.

President Obama’s plan calls for handing over the country’s security to local authorities eventually, allowing the United States to lower troop levels in Afghanistan gradually, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said.

“I don’t consider this an exit strategy, and I try to avoid using that term,” Mr. Gates said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “I think this is a transition that’s going to take place. And it’s not an arbitrary date.”

Mr. Gates said two to four years probably will be needed to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But he warned that in the meantime, he expects the number of U.S. casualties to increase.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai “talked about taking over security control in three years of important areas of Afghanistan, and all of Afghanistan in five years. I think that we’re in that, we’re in that neighborhood. Two to three to four years,” Mr. Gates said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“But again, during that period we will be, just as we did in Iraq, turning over provinces to … Afghan security forces, and that will allow us to bring the number of our forces down in a steady but conditions-based circumstance,” the secretary said.

Mr. Gates appeared with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on three Sunday television talk shows to defend the president’s Afghanistan war strategy, which includes an increase of 30,000 U.S. troops beginning in early 2010. The plan, announced by Mr. Obama last week, would increase to 100,000 the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, marking the largest expansion of the war since it began eight years ago.

The troop surge is expected to be followed by the beginning of a withdrawal of U.S. troops in July 2011.

Mr. Gates said the timetable should give U.S. military commanders enough time to “demonstrate decisively in certain areas of Afghanistan that the approach we’re taking is working.”

He said the transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghans will begin in less contested areas of the country.

“But it will be the same kind of gradual conditions-based transition, province by province, district by district, that we saw in Iraq,” he said on ABC.

Mr. Gates warned the American public that a surge in forces and a change in strategy will produce more casualties, as initially happened in Iraq.

“The tragedy is that the casualties will probably continue to grow, at least for the time being,” he said on “Meet the Press.” “This is what we saw in the surge in Iraq.”

U.S. Central Command head Gen. David H. Petraeus, who implemented the successful surge strategy in Iraq in 2007, said the number of troops chosen to leave Afghanistan in summer 2011 will be based on success in the field - not a predetermined schedule.

“There’s no timeline, no ramp, nothing like that,” Gen. Petraeus said on “Fox News Sunday.” “This doesn’t trigger a rush to the exits.”

White House National Security Adviser James L. Jones reiterated that the July 2011 date was not a hard-and-fast exit strategy.

“It is not a cliff. It’s a glide slope,” the retired general said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We are here to make sure that Afghanistan succeeds.”

Mrs. Clinton said the United States would continue to reach out to low-level Taliban members to persuade them to leave the group. But she was less optimistic about the recruitment of top Taliban officials.

“They have to be willing to abide by the constitution of Afghanistan and live peacefully,” Mrs. Clinton said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We have no firm information whether any of those leaders would be at all interested in following that kind of a path. In fact, I’m highly skeptical that any of them would.”

The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee said that setting any kind of timeline would send a message to the Afghans that the U.S. lacks the political and military will to complete its anti-terrorism mission in the country. Setting time-certain schedules, he said, also emboldens al Qaeda and Taliban forces to continue fighting.

“We don’t want the Taliban to make comments, like Taliban prisoners are saying, ‘You’ve got the watches and we have the time,’ ” Sen. John McCain of Arizona said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We don’t want to send that message.”

The Senate’s second-ranking Republican, Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, said the president has “complicated matters” by announcing the date of the beginning of troop withdrawals.

“He said it is chiseled in stone. But what happens the day after, and how many troops come down?” Mr. Kyl said on “State of the Union.” “In war, will matters. … The whole object of war is to break the will of the enemy to fight.”

From the other end of the political spectrum, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and one of Mr. Obama’s biggest allies, has questioned key parts of Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan war strategy, particularly his announced troop surge.

“I’m skeptical as to whether 30,000 more troops will make a difference,” Mr. Durbin said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We have over 200,000 now when you count NATO forces, American forces and Afghan military forces.”

The senator declined to say whether he would vote in the Senate to support funding the president’s troop request.

“I’m going to meet with the president, I’m sure, and have conversations about that deadline, which appears to be interpreted different ways by different people,” he said.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said she was satisfied with the president’s plan. She has been calling for timelines on troop withdrawals.

“If we’re there to win, let’s have a strategy and the tactics to go with the strategy to win. This surge enables that,” Mrs. Feinstein said on “State of the Union.”

“It has worked before [in Iraq]; it has a chance of working now,” she said.

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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