By Mark Memmott
Three of President Barack Obama's top military and foreign policy aides are on Capitol Hill this morning to answer questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee about the administration's plans to add 30,000 more U.S. troops to the mission in Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen will be doing the explaining. Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking Republican John McCain of Arizona will be among the questioners.
We'll update this post with highlights. Be sure to click your "refresh" button to see our latest additions. The session is due to get started at 9 a.m. ET.
Update at 12:47 p.m. ET: The hearing just ended. Right before the gavel came down, Gates returned to the issue of when U.S. troops will be leaving Afghanistan.
"I detest the phrase 'exit strategy'," he told the senators. "What we are looking at over time is a transition in our relationship with the Afghans" from one now predominately military in nature to one that is focused mostly on development and civilian issues.
Update at 11:40 a.m. ET: Back on the issue of when troops will start coming home and what the start of a security handover in July 2011 will mean, Gates just said that "the end state in Afghanistan looks a lot like what we see in Iraq."
He predicts a "gradual transfer of security responsibility to indigenous forces ... and a gradual draw down" of U.S. forces.
It will be "a map that changes colors at different times" depending on the conditions in different parts of Afghanistan, Gates added.
Update at 11:20 a.m. ET. Interesting sidenote from the Associated Press:
Despite the war's waning popularity among voters, there were few protesters on hand as Gates, Mullen and Clinton testified in a cavernous hearing room. Unlike 2007, when the Bush administration's troop build up in Iraq prompted angry chants by protesters, there were only three visible members of the famed "Code Pink" anti-war group. They held up signs denouncing the troop buildup and calling the war hopeless.
Update at 10:25 a.m. ET: Why was July 2011 chosen as the target for beginning to hand over security to the Afghans?
Gates says it's because "it will be two years after the Marines arrived in Helmand."
Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan, has been a Taliban stronghold and is where U.S. forces have faced some of the strongest resistance in recent months.
Mullen and Gates say they're confident that two years of hard work by U.S. military personnel in Helmand should produce significant progress.
Update at 10:15 a.m. ET: Responding to questions from Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., about whether U.S. forces will start leaving as soon as they begin to hand over security to Afghan forces (in July 2011, the administration hopes), Gates says it is logical to assume that:
"As we turn over more districts and more provinces to Afgahn security control ... there will be a thinning of our forces and a gradual draw-down."
But, he adds, "we're not just going to throw these guys into the swimming pool and walk away."
Translation: If commanders think U.S. forces need to stay close by for a while, they will.
Update at 10:05 a.m. ET: Mullen tries to help on the handover/withdrawal/conditions debate. He says July 2011 is when the U.S. expects the transition of security to Afghan forces will be able to get started -- not necessarily the month when U.S. forces will be able to start leaving.
Update at 9:58 a.m. ET: So will the U.S. begin withdrawing on an "arbitrary date?" McCain asks Gates, following up on the secretary's response to Levin about a handover beginning in July 2011.
Gates says it is the administration's opinion that the transition will be able to start then. And a review in December 2010 will, he believes, confirm that July 2011 will be an appropriate time to begin.
Pressed again by McCain on whether withdrawal will begin regardless of conditions, Gates adjusts his language a bit: "If it appears that the strategy is not working (in that Dec. 2010 review)... we will take a hard look at the strategy itself."
Update at 9:51 a.m. ET: With his first question, Levin gets Gates to make some news.
Is July 2011 the month when Americans forces will start handing over authority to Afghan forces if conditions on the ground permit or when the handover will begin regardless of conditions?
Gates says that is the month when the administration expects the handover will begin and that the date is not "conditions-based." Meaning the administration is planning to start the handover then regardless.
Update at 9:45 a.m. ET:
Mullen opened his remarks by saying he fully supports the president's decision. The strategy and resources, he says, are now more appropriate to the situation in Afghanistan.
As for the decision-making process, Mullen says that "the time we took was well worth it."
Some critics, most notably former vice president Dick Cheney, have said the president took took long to make his decision and may have signaled to the nation's enemies a lack of resolve.
Update at 9:35 a.m. ET: In her statement, Clinton has echoed the sentiments of the president and Gates on what they see as the national security interests at stake. And, she has said:
"The duration of our military presence is not open-ended, but our civilian commitment must continue even as our troops eventually begin to come home. ...
"Our resolve in this fight is reflected in the substantial commitment of troops since the president took office and in the significant civilian commitment that will continue long after our combat forces leave."
Update at 9:20 a.m. ET: Gates just said that the Taliban's gains in recent years have "dramatically strengthened the extremists' ideology" and that its close relationship to the terrorist network means that further Taliban gains would "strengthen al-Qaida's message to the Muslim world."
Update at 9:13 a.m. ET: The State Department just released the text of Clinton's prepared remarks. She will begin by saying of the plan to add troops that:
Simply put, among a range of difficult choices, this is the best way to protect our nation now and in the future.
The extremists we are fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan have attacked us and our allies before. If we allow them access to the very same safe havens they used before 2001, they will have a greater capacity to regroup and attack again. They could drag an entire region into chaos. Our civilian and military leaders in Afghanistan have reported that the situation is serious and worsening. We agree.
Update at 9:10 a.m. ET: McCain, the president's opponent in the 2008 election, just said he supports the president's decision to add 30,000 troops. But he does not support the "arbitrary" decision to set what McCain sees as a "date for withdrawal." The president said last night that he believes U.S. forces will be able to start leaving Afghanistan in 2011.
Update at 9:07 a.m ET: The Associated Press says that Gates will make the case this morning that the Taliban will take over Afghanistan if the U.S. does not succeed in its mission to stabilize that nation.
In his opening statement, Levin is restating his position that the U.S. needs to send more military trainers -- and does not need to add a large number of combat forces.