WASHINGTON -- U.S. lawmakers have closely questioned members of President Barack Obama's cabinet on the details and wisdom of the new U.S. plan to add 30,000 more troops to the war in Afghanistan, with a goal of beginning a withdrawal in 18 months.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, answered questions for more than three hours from members of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.
There was criticism from both sides of the political aisle following Obama's announcement of the new strategy on December 1.
Many Democrats are opposed to an escalation of the 8-year-old war, and many Republicans are unhappy with the president's promise to begin a withdrawal of troops in 18 months.
Nevertheless, Congress appears willing to approve the buildup's $30 billion price tag.
In his opening statement, Gates told the committee that the U.S. goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains the same as when Obama first announced his joint strategy last March: "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda and to prevent its return to both countries."
He said defeating Al-Qaeda and enhancing Afghan security are mutually reinforcing missions that "cannot be untethered from one another."
Gates said that's why Obama's plan focuses equally on reversing Taliban gains and helping Afghans make progress in stabilizing the country.
"The president's new strategic concept aims to reverse the Taliban's momentum and reduce its strength while providing the time and space necessary for the Afghans to develop enough security and governance capacity to stabilize their own country," Gates said. "We will focus our resources where the population is most threatened and align military and civilian efforts accordingly."
Mullen told the committee that the new plan marks the first time since the war's beginning that the strategy matches the situation on the ground and that adequate resources are being made available.
"I have seen my share of internal debates about various national security issues, especially over the course of these last two years," Mullen added. "And I can honestly say that I do not recall an issue so thoroughly or so thoughtfully considered as this one."
The committee's chairman, Senator Carl M. Levin (Democrat-Michigan), who has been a vocal critic of any increase in U.S. troop strength, said he supported Obama's plan to bolster the training and the rapid growth of Afghan security forces.
And he called the president's decision to set a date of July 2011 to begin withdrawing U.S. troops a "reasonable way to produce the sense of urgency in the Afghan government that has been lacking up to now."
But he said he had serious misgivings about adding more troops when Afghan security forces remain small and weak.
Levin said he is concerned 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." 'Uncertain Trumpet'
By contrast, the top Republican on the committee, Senator John McCain (Arizona), said Obama is right to send 30,000 more American troops.
"I think President Obama has made the right decision to embrace a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan and to resource it properly," McCain said. "I would have much preferred General [Stanley] McChrystal receive the entire force he had requested, but I have spoken with our military and civilian leaders, and I think the 30,000 additional U.S. troops that the president has called for, plus greater force commitments from our allies, will enable us to reverse the momentum of the insurgency and create the conditions for success in Afghanistan."
I think a failed state that is totally lawless, that is a safe haven for terrorists -- particularly the syndicate of terrorism headed by Al-Qaeda -- poses a direct threat to the security of the United States of America.
But McCain took strong issue with Obama's decision to set a date of July 2011 to begin withdrawing troops, saying the U.S. and its NATO allies "don't want to sound an uncertain trumpet to our friends in the region."
He said the withdrawal target date will "embolden Al-Qaeda and the Taliban."
"A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the entire region -- all of whom currently doubt whether America is committed to winning this war," McCain said.
McCain asked Gates if the United States would withdraw troops based on "an arbitrary date."
"The essence of our civil-military plan is to clear, hold, build, and transfer. Beginning to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans in summer 2011 is critical and, in my view, achievable," Gates said. "This transfer will occur district by district, province by province, depending on conditions on the ground."'Other People Are Listening'
Indeed, most of the questioning from lawmakers focused on Obama's decision to announce an exit strategy at the same time as he announced an increase in troop strength.
Republican Senator Lindsay Graham (South Carolina) asked the panel if, during the three months of deliberation that preceded Obama's announcement, they had realized that this was the "last, best chance America has to get it right in Afghanistan -- politically, militarily, and otherwise?"
All replied that they had.
He asked Clinton to rank the consequences to U.S. national security of allowing Afghanistan to become a failed state, "one being inconsequential and 10 being grave."
Clinton said she would put it at a "10."
"I think a failed state that is totally lawless, that is a safe haven for terrorists -- particularly the syndicate of terrorism headed by Al-Qaeda -- poses a direct threat to the security of the United States of America," she said.
Graham agreed, but then questioned the decision to announce the U.S. plan to withdraw in 18 months. He said while an American public weary of war might have wanted to hear that the war will being winding down in less than two years, "other people are listening."
"I understand why [Obama would] want to let the American people know that we're not going to be there forever, but this is a critically important event," Graham said. "I think that the success of this operation depends on will and resolve, and I just don't want the July 2011 statement to be seen by our enemy -- which is not one of the audiences you mentioned, which I think are listening -- that we have somehow locked ourselves into leaving. The question is, have we locked ourselves into leaving, Secretary Clinton, in July 2011?"
Clinton said she believed the United States has not "locked ourselves into leaving" but has signaled "very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan. We are not interested in running their country [or] building their nation. We are trying to give them the space and time to be able to build up sufficient forces to defend themselves."
After the Senate hearing ended, Gates, Mullen, and Clinton took a quick lunch break and then sat down to do it all again -- this time with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.