- The Washington Times - Monday, September 14, 2009

Congressional skepticism over the Obama administration’s plans for Afghanistan mounted Sunday as four senators questioned whether more troops should head there and one lawmaker called for a withdrawal timeline.

Democrats Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Dianne Feinstein of California and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois along with Republican Susan Collins of Maine said they shared colleagues’ concerns about boosting troop levels before substantial bolstering of the Afghan military and police.

“I just don’t know that more troops is the answer. We clearly need more American civilians to help build up institutions. We need to grow the size of the Afghan army. But we’re dealing with widespread corruption, a very difficult terrain, and I’m just wondering where this ends and how we’ll know if this succeeded,” said Ms. Collins, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, has urged the White House to avoid escalating the war and speed up training for Afghan security forces instead of sending more U.S. troops into combat.

The senators’ comments on troop commitments came amid reports that the Pentagon has begun putting into place a new program under which hundreds of prisoners being held by the military in Afghanistan will be given the right to challenge their detentions.

An unidentified defense official said Sunday that prisoners at the Bagram military base are all to be given a U.S. military official to serve as their personal representative and a chance to go before new Detainee Review Boards to have their cases considered, the Associated Press reported.

The initiative amounts to the first time prisoners will be able to call witnesses and submit evidence in their defense. There are about 600 detainees at the facility, some who have been held for up to six years.

An order creating the review boards was signed in July by Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn. Some military officers serving in Afghanistan have already been assigned to the boards and some who will serve as personal representatives have already been identified, the official said. He declined to say whether any proceedings have already been held.

Mr. Durbin, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said he shared Mr. Levin’s concern about force levels.

“I think at this point sending additional troops would not be the right thing to do,” he said. “At this point, we should follow Sen. Levin’s suggestion. Let’s get it right on the ground, let the Afghans bring stability to their own country. Let’s work with them to make that happen.”

Mrs. Shaheen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said she understood Mr. Levin’s concerns but stressed that she wanted more information on the administration’s Afghanistan policy from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces there. He recently submitted a broad review of current Afghan strategy to President Obama.

“I think we need to get the measurements that Congress has mandated from the White House on how we’re going to determine progress in Afghanistan,” she said.

She added that “while I appreciate Sen. Levin’s concerns and think they’re very real, I think it’s too soon to be able to make that determination. We need to assess these reports.”

Mrs. Feinstein, who leads the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said she supported training the Afghan security forces but did not think U.S. goals in Afghanistan had been outlined clearly.

She called for a specific date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“I believe the mission should be time-limited, that there should be no, ‘Well, we’ll let you know in a year and a half, depending on how we do.’ I think the Congress is entitled to know, after Iraq, exactly how long are we going to be in Afghanistan.”

The senators’ comments came as the administration considers whether to boost the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the 68,000 approved to be there by the end of the year. Congressional leaders are expected to be briefed this week on Gen. McChrystal’s review.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is expected to request additional forces to address what he sees as shortfalls in the military’s ability to deal with a rising threat from roadside bombs in Afghanistan. That would not necessarily mean more forces above the current 68,000, but might mean replacing some existing forces with others specializing in bomb detection and removal and medical response.

Mrs. Shaheen, Mrs. Feinstein and Ms. Collins spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

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