Lawmakers from both parties sharply questioned administration officials who came to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to defend President Obama’s new Afghanistan war plan and his timeline to eventually end the U.S. military commitment there.
Many Republicans expressed support for the president’s plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in the coming months, but Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and others questioned Mr. Obama’s determination to begin withdrawing U.S. forces by July 2011.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Mr. Obama’s compromise plan was designed to reassure Afghans of the U.S. military commitment while showing war-weary Americans that the commitment was not endless.
“I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving,” Mrs. Clinton told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But what we have done … is to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan.”
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, noted, “There is another audience in this: the enemy. They have a vote in this war; they are a participant in this.”
In Kabul, the militant Islamist Taliban movement - the chief target of the president’s surge - said in a statement that Mr. Obama’s plan “will not pay off.”
The statement said the added troops will only give insurgents the opportunity to “increase their attacks and shake the American economy.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose corruption-ridden government is seen by many as a weak link in the U.S. strategy, welcomed both the extra troops and Mr. Obama’s 2011 timeline to begin withdrawing.
“Afghanistan believes that setting a timetable for the reduction of U.S. forces will pave the way for the growth of Afghan security forces and the eventual self-reliance we seek,” Mr. Karzai’s office said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and a skeptic of the buildup, told the administration representatives that he was concerned that Afghanistan’s army and security forces will prove too weak to take control of the conflict, undermining U.S. hopes for a quick withdrawal.
“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,” Mr. Levin said.
But some lawmakers said Mr. Obama had struck the right balance in a situation with no good options.
“The president is not doing it because it is politically expedient. He is doing it because it is in the national security interest of the United States,” said Sen. Evan Bayh, a centrist Democrat from Indiana.
Mr. Gates told the panel that the U.S. withdrawal would begin in July 2011 and that the date would not be tied to conditions on the ground. But he noted that Mr. Obama plans a full-scale review of his policy in December 2010 and that the pace at which American forces leave after July 2011 could be adjusted.
“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,” said Mr. Gates, considered among Mr. Obama’s most influential advisers in the selection of the surge strategy.
“We’re not just going to throw these guys into the swimming pool and walk away,” Mr. Gates told the committee. The pace of the withdrawal “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.”
Asked specifically by Mr. Levin whether 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 Mr. McCain, 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.
Mrs. Clinton said she would begin sending more diplomatic workers to Afghanistan and Pakistan and will leave for Brussels on Thursday night to begin negotiating expanded international support. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he expected the allies to bolster the American buildup with more than 5,000 additional troops.
Addressing the reliability of the Karzai government to prosecute the war and rebuild the country, Mrs. Clinton said the administration is working to determine which ministries in Afghanistan are worthy to receive U.S. and international funds and has identified some ministries that should receive absolutely no money.
Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen will spend much of Thursday taking more questions from House and Senate lawmakers.
“This region is the epicenter of global Islamic extremism,” Adm. Mullen said, warning that 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 A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan who sought the additional troops, is expected to testify next week.
The White House found itself under attack on another front when former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld disputed Mr. Obama’s assertion in his West Point address that, under President George W. Bush, requests by U.S. commanders in Afghanistan for more troops and resources were repeatedly rejected because of the priority placed on Iraq.
Mr. Rumsfeld said the charge was a “bald misstatement” and that he never turned down any such requests in his tenure from 2001 to 2006.
Adm. Mullen told a House panel that Mr. Obama’s remarks were specifically in reference to requests in 2008 - after Mr. Rumsfeld had left the Pentagon.