- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The leader of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said Tuesday that President Obama’s decision to increase troop levels and then draw them down in 18 months was not his call, but he supports the plan.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal also called the capture of Osama bin Laden key to toppling al Qaeda as lawmakers pressed him on whether he could follow enemies into Pakistan, a nation critics have said is home to more terrorist organizations.

Still, it is the troop-withdrawal date Mr. Obama announced last week that has become the key sticking point for lawmakers who want troops out sooner and those who say that timelines empower the enemy in a plan that many say they would otherwise support wholeheartedly.

“I did not recommend that date. But I did identify to my leadership that I felt that 18 months - in about 18 months, about the summer of 2011, that we thought we could make significant progress against this insurgency,” Gen. McChrystal told members of the House Armed Services Committee. He later said he fully supports the withdrawal date.

Gen. McChrystal testified Tuesday before a pair of congressional panels, along with the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry, as the administration continued its public lobbying of Congress for a war plan.

Last week, Mr. Obama said he would begin sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in a few weeks, and that he would begin withdrawing them in 18 months.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have been out front in defending the start of the troop withdrawal, something which appears to have an almost solid start date and highly contingent finish.

“It seems to me there is some ambiguity here, and there needs to be more clarity,” said Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, New Jersey Republican.

Questions also turned to bin Laden, who continues to elude U.S. forces, and to the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the terrorist leader is thought to have been nearly caught.

Gen. McChrystal said killing bin Laden is critical to defeating al Qaeda.

“I believe he is an iconic figure at this point, whose - whose survival emboldens al Qaeda as a franchising organization across the world. I don’t think it would make - it would not defeat al Qaeda to have him captured or killed, but I don’t think that we can finally defeat al Qaeda until he’s captured or killed,” Gen. McChrystal told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday afternoon.

One of the few congressional Republicans to oppose a troop surge, Rep. Walter Jones, drew an analogy between Afghanistan and the Vietnam War in asking whether enemies would be able to escape across the border into Pakistan and exploit the rules of engagement.

“Do you have the green light to go across the border in hot pursuit?” asked Mr. Jones, North Carolina Republican.

Troops will be allowed to fire across the border at enemy forces when in pursuit, Gen. McChrystal said, but he did not immediately know whether they would be able to physically cross the border.

“Pakistan does have sovereign, strategic interests, which I respect. And I think it’s important that what we as a nation do is recognize those, and just like we do with Afghanistan, reinforce that long-term partnership,” Gen. McChrystal said.

While the president’s war strategy focuses on Afghanistan, many lawmakers have been critical of an apparent lack of strategy for Pakistan, the nation from which al Qaeda is now largely operating.

“I have a lot of the same concerns about Pakistan, I should say, that my colleagues do on both sides of the aisle, and specifically how it is the case that in the near term and - and going forward, our strategy is going to deal with the problems of Pakistan,” said Rep. David Loebsack, Iowa Democrat.

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