Debate Over Obama's War Plan Focuses On Pakistan There is growing concern on Capitol Hill about what more the U.S. can do about terrorist havens in Pakistan. Some lawmakers say the success or failure of President Obama's plan for more troops and a new war strategy in Afghanistan ultimately depends on what happens in Pakistan.

Debate Over Obama's War Plan Focuses On Pakistan

Adm. Michael Mullen (left), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, testified Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, defending President Obama's new strategy on Afghanistan. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Adm. Michael Mullen (left), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, testified Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, defending President Obama's new strategy on Afghanistan.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Officials from the Obama administration continued on Thursday to defend their new Afghanistan strategy amid a flurry of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Much of the debate centers on President Obama's July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, but there is also growing concern about what more the U.S. can do about terrorist havens in Pakistan.

"It is not clear how an expanded military effort in Afghanistan addresses the problem of Taliban and al-Qaida safe havens across the border in Pakistan," Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday during a hearing on the new strategy.

Obama administration officials say that expanding the U.S. partnership with Pakistan is one of the central objectives in the new strategy, although they have released few details about any new initiatives or specific plans.

In an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, says that Islamabad has already escalated its efforts against insurgents and al-Qaida safe havens in Pakistan's tribal regions.

"Pakistan is doing a lot more than some people realize," he tells NPR's Melissa Block. "In the last six months, they have launched two huge offensives in the west, first in Swat, then in South Waziristan, against the Taliban."

But the results from these offensives have been mixed. While Pakistan has made significant inroads against Pakistani Taliban figures who have targeted the Pakistani government, it has done very little to go after Afghan Taliban forces who are holed up nearby.

Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, concedes in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, scheduled to air on Friday, that there are "elements" of the Taliban that the Pakistani government has not yet targeted.

"In fact, I think we have to be very understanding of this, frankly," says Petraeus. "You can only stick so many short sticks into hornets' nests at one time."

He notes that some of these insurgents had been supported by Pakistan's intelligence services with U.S. government funding when they were fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. But Petraeus adds that Pakistan's attitude has changed dramatically, and that Pakistan should be applauded for its efforts.

"There are limits to how fast we can expect, or perhaps demand, that Pakistan can take certain action," says Petraeus. "The fact is that they have shifted a substantial amount of their military capability from, for example, the Indian border and from other locations to deal with this extremist threat."

For his part, Holbrooke acknowledged that the two countries still have more work to do to rebuild a more balanced relationship after years when Pakistan was run by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who originally seized power in a military coup and resigned as president under the threat of impeachment in 2008.

"Pakistan and the U.S. have gone through a very rocky period in the last decade during the military government era, and we're coming out of that," Holbrooke tells NPR. "We are working on the Pakistani relationship, probably more actively than any other in the world. It is so important."

A number of Democrats are continuing to express opposition to Obama's plan to dispatch an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next summer. The increase would amount to a total U.S. force of nearly 100,000 soldiers.

Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tells NPR's All Things Considered that the Obama administration is making a mistake, because there simply aren't enough trained Afghan forces to partner with U.S. forces on joint operations.

"Adding American combat troops without having the adequate number of Afghan partners is a real mistake," says Levin. "Because, if anything, it increases the dependency of the Afghans on us when our whole mission should be to train, equip, and partner and empower the Afghan army and police so they can provide for the security for their own country."

Still, U.S. forces won't be alone. NATO allies are poised to commit additional troops to Afghanistan, as well, to supplement the 39,000 NATO and international troops there today.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen predicted pledges of more than 5,000 troops in the coming weeks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is heading to Brussels for NATO meetings on Friday.

Already, the United Kingdom has committed to sending 500 extra troops and extending the deployments of another 700. The former Soviet republic of Georgia is sending a full battalion, or about 1,000 soldiers.

"We are very grateful for every country that supports us," says Holbrooke, who is in Brussels to meet with NATO allies. "This is the best support I think we've had from an international coalition in my time."

Obama administration officials are spending much of their time explaining and defending the new July 2011 target for starting a withdrawal. The date generated concern in both Kabul and Islamabad, although there was a more mixed reception on Capitol Hill.

Many Republicans have attacked the target date for withdrawal, saying it sends the wrong signals to the Afghan and Pakistani governments and could be seen as a sign of weakness by the Taliban.

But Levin praised the target, saying it is "the only way" to pressure the Afghan government to train its security forces more rapidly and crack down on corruption.

At a hearing on Wednesday before the Armed Services Committee, top administration officials offered several characterizations of the July 2011 date that appeared to be contradictory.

In early questioning, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the deadline was not conditions-based, but later he also said that the administration has scheduled a review for next December and will "take a hard look" at the withdrawal plans "if it appears the strategy is not working."

Levin notes that the ultimate decision rests with Obama.

"I hope he sticks with it," Levin told NPR. "Some of the testimony yesterday got pretty wobbly on that issue despite the president's clarity that the beginning of the reduction would take place in 2011."

There's also the question of how long the Afghan people will tolerate the U.S. military presence, or whether more troops will simply create more opposition.

Petraeus wrestled with a similar dilemma during his earlier role as the top U.S. commander in Iraq during the Bush administration's surge there in 2007.

"This is not unlike Iraq," he tells Morning Edition. "We used to feel these twin emotions all the time. They used to say, 'Don't leave us. Don't leave us.' And then they'd say, 'When are you going home?' "