- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 2, 2009

UPDATED:

Top Obama administration officials said Wednesday that a plan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan by mid-2011 is intended to push that country’s government to assume responsibility for the nation’s long-term security but that President Obama will consider a midcourse correction.

A day after Mr. Obama outlined plans to escalate the war with an additional 30,000 U.S. troops in the coming months, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the administration will conduct a “thorough review” of its plan and the progress of the war in December 2010.

“If it appears that the strategy’s not working, and that we are not going to be able to transition in 2011, then we will take a hard look at the strategy itself,” he said.

The Pentagon chief said Mr. Obama’s June 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. forces was needed to stress to the people of Afghanistan the need to take responsibility for their own security needs. But he also signaled some flexibility in the time line Mr. Obama laid down in his nationally televised address from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., on Tuesday evening.

“We’re not just going to throw these guys into the swimming pool and walk away,” Mr. Gates told the committee. “It will be based on conditions on the ground, but at the same time … we have to build a fire under them, frankly, to get them to do the kind of recruitment and retention that allows us to make this transition.”

But asked specifically by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, who is Senate Armed Forces Committee chairman, if the July 2011 date set by Mr. Obama to begin the “transition” process could be “conditions-based,” Mr. Gates replied, “No, sir.”

Mr. Levin and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who is the panel’s ranking GOP member, pressed Mr. Gates on the question of whether an adverse military situation in Afghanistan would stall Mr. Obama’s plans to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in the country in mid-2011.

“I think the American people ought to know whether we will begin withdrawing if the conditions are right, or whether we will begin withdrawing no matter what,” Mr. McCain said.

The troop withdrawal time line Mr. Obama called for in his prime-time speech Tuesday has emerged as a sticking point for congressional Republicans who otherwise support the president’s call for an additional 30,000 U.S. troops for the war. The additional U.S. forces could begin deploying as early as before Christmas.

Mr. Obama’s top war advisers told the hearing that the president’s plan is built on demonstrable goals designed to hand over control of the country to Afghan security forces but will be reviewed in December 2010. Mr. Obama’s plan calls for escalating the fight against the al Qaeda terrorist network and the militant Islamist Taliban movement in Afghanistan that has long sheltered it.

Mr. Gates added that the administration chose to the July 2011 date in part because it would be two years since U.S. Marines entered the Helmand province.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, pressed Mr. Gates on the rationale for setting a date to begin withdrawing. The secretary said the deadline is aimed at the Afghan people, who want to know that the United States will not be a long-term occupying force, and at letting the American public know the war will be winding down. But Mr. Graham cautioned: “There is another audience in this: the enemy. They have a vote in this war.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she will begin sending more diplomatic workers to Afghanistan and Pakistan and will leave for Brussels on Thursday night to begin negotiating continued international support.

Questions of corruption inside the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai have caused many lawmakers to question the reliability of the government in Kabul as a partner in the war.

The administration has begun certifying local ministries in Afghanistan to receive U.S. and international funds, Mrs. Clinton said, and has identified some ministries that should receive absolutely no money.

Efforts on the ground to identify and fight corruption have involved deploying U.S. investigators from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies and training Afghan forces. In particular, the United States has focused on developing a major crimes task force that already has charged several Afghan officials with corruption, Mrs. Clinton said.

Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will spend much of today and tomorrow taking questions from House and Senate lawmakers.

Some Democratic lawmakers questioned Mr. Obama’s plan. “I believe the principal mission of the U.S. troop increases in Afghanistan should be to accelerate the transition to Afghan forces taking the lead for providing Afghanistan’s security,” Mr. Levin said in his opening statement. He has been skeptical in the past of the major U.S. troop increase now embraced by Mr. Obama. He added that “it seems to me that the large influx of U.S. combat troops will put more U.S. Marines on street corners in Afghan villages, with too few Afghan partners alongside them.”

“This region is the epicenter of global Islamic extremism,” Adm. Mullen said, warning any future terrorist attack on the United States likely would be hatched in the region. “Al Qaeda may in fact be the architect of such an attack, but the Taliban will be the bricklayers.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, is expected to testify next week.


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