Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (from left), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (from left), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama's plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan while setting a time frame for withdrawal came under scrutiny Wednesday, as top administration officials appeared before House and Senate panels to reassure skeptical lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced tough questions from Republicans opposed to setting an exit date and Democrats who questioned the value of sending more troops.
The response was the best Obama could have hoped for from a Congress sharply divided on the war.
"It's not likely that there would be any circumstances where the president would lose this battle this year" with lawmakers, said Rep. John Murtha, a vocal war critic who oversees military spending.
In his opening statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates warned of "severe consequences for the United States and the world" if the American mission doesn't succeed.
"Failure in Afghanistan would mean a Taliban takeover of much, if not most, of the country and likely a renewed civil war," Gates warned the committee. "Taliban-ruled areas could in short order become, once again, a sanctuary for al-Qaida as well as a staging area for resurgent militant groups on the offensive in Pakistan."
Mullen warned that the insurgents had gained "dominant influence" in 11 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
The strategy Obama outlined in Tuesday's prime-time speech centers on a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops and establishes an 18-month timetable for the start of a withdrawal from the region. The increase would raise the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to about 100,000 troops.
The president emphasized the importance of Afghanistan to America's interests and security during his address from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Afghanistan, he said, is "the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaida. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak."
But the issue of a timetable — when and how to implement it and whether to have one at all — quickly shaped up as the most contentious detail at Wednesday's hearing. Echoing the debate over the timing of withdrawal in Iraq, many Republicans lined up against setting a firm date, saying it gave the enemy an incentive to lie low and wait for U.S. forces to exit.
Carl Levin (D-MI), the chairman of the Senate committee, opened the questioning by trying to pin Gates down on what, if any, conditions would need to be met to begin drawing down troops by the July 2011 target date.
Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, have said the plan would take into account "conditions on the ground."
But Gates initially told the panel that a withdrawal was not condition-based, though he later softened that assessment, which prompted a flurry of questions from senators for both Gates and Mullen.
"Which is it?" Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) asked Mullen. "You can't have both."
The defense secretary tried to clarify: "As I suggested, we will have a thorough review 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."
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (right), seen in September with fellow Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said he supports the president's strategy but would have preferred to see a bigger increase in U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (right), seen in September with fellow Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said he supports the president's strategy but would have preferred to see a bigger increase in U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee, asked Gates whether the July 2011 target was "an arbitrary date."
"I think it's the judgment of all of us ... that we would be in a position particularly in uncontested areas where we would be able to begin that transition," the defense secretary said.
Gates said the July 2011 date would mark two years after the U.S. Marines arrived in troubled Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban stronghold has been the site of numerous pitched battles between insurgents and U.S. forces in recent months.
Both Mullen and Gates said they were confident that two years of hard work by U.S. forces in the province would sufficiently secure the region.
Levin expressed serious misgivings about the troop escalation when the Afghan security force remains small and weak.
"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," he said.
The trio of administration officials sought to expound on the White House's three main aims: to reverse the Taliban's momentum, to secure major towns and cities, and to train Afghan forces as quickly as possible. The additional troops will include at least two combat brigades, as well as a large contingent of soldiers dedicated to training Afghan security forces.
As part of a full-court press by the White House to make the case for Obama's new strategy, Gates, Clinton and Mullen argued for the troop increase. But they were careful with their words so as not to aggravate divisions on the issue.
Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the plan to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011 would depend on conditions on the ground.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the plan to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011 would depend on conditions on the ground. Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
Clinton and Gates cast the war situation as serious but not hopeless. Mullen said the Taliban had recaptured ground in Afghanistan — gaining "dominant influence" in 11 of 34 provinces — but could be defeated with enough resources and time.
"While there are no guarantees in war, I expect that we will make significant headway in the next 18-24 months," he said.
Gates told lawmakers that the situation is far less dire than the violent chaos that gripped Iraq in 2006. Still, he said, "This will take more patience, perseverance and sacrifice by the United States and our allies."
The president also is ordering all U.S. forces in Afghanistan to partner full-time with the Afghan army and police to help them with training. The goal is to jump-start the transfer of responsibility for securing Afghanistan to the Afghan government, officials say.
Clinton told the Senate panel that the administration is on target to triple the number of U.S. civilians in Afghanistan to 974 by early next year. She also backed a plan to bring moderate Taliban who renounce violence into the governing process.
"All Afghans should have the choice to pursue a better future if they do so peacefully, respect the basic human rights of their fellow citizens, and renounce al-Qaida," Clinton said.
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged European and other allies to contribute more troops to the fight, saying the war in Afghanistan was not America's alone.
Rasmussen said he expects the allies to boost the NATO-led force by more than 5,000 troops. He said the best way to overcome widespread public opposition in Europe was to demonstrate progress in the war, which could be accomplished by turning over control to Afghan forces in areas where the security situation is good.
Congress was using the high-profile hearings to express its misgivings about the new strategy.
Republicans, many of whom had accused the Obama administration of foot-dragging on the Afghanistan decision, had mostly good things to say about the substance of the president's speech but criticized his decision to set a timetable for withdrawal.
Obama said Tuesday that by setting a date for withdrawal, he was trying to create added momentum for building up the capacity of the Afghan government and its security forces.
"The absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government," Obama said during his speech. "It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."
The president also remarked that there had never been an option before him for troop deployments before 2010. "So, there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war," he said.
But Obama may face more skepticism from within his own party than from Republicans. Many Democrats said they weren't convinced that sending more troops will hasten an end to the war.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) told NPR's Morning Edition that he thinks the president "came to the wrong conclusion."
"The ending date he proposed last night was not really an ending date. It was the beginning of a process," he said.
"It could take years and years more," McGovern told NPR. "I think sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan will make it 30,000 times harder to get out of this mess."
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), called the plan "an expensive gamble to undertake armed nation-building on behalf of a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy."
On Wednesday, McChrystal met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and later described the Afghan leader's reaction to the new U.S. strategy as "really positive."
"The president was very upbeat, very resolute this morning," McChrystal said. "I really believe that everybody's got a focus now that's sharper than it was 24 hours ago."
The Taliban responded Wednesday by saying the White House plan would only make it fight harder. In a statement, the hard-line Islamist militia said it was "committed to increasing the number of mujahedeen [holy warriors] and strengthen[ing] their resistance."
During the first eight months of 2009, there were nearly 13,000 enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan — more than 2 1/2 times the number reported in the same period in 2008, according to Pentagon data. The Congressional Research Service estimates that since the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, the U.S. has spent close to $227 billion.
NPR's Don Gonyea and Kevin Whitelaw contributed to this report, which also includes wire service material.