WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from both parties searched for weaknesses Wednesday in President Barack Obama's newly announced Afghan strategy, focusing on what many said was a contradiction between his promise to begin removing U.S. troops in 18 months and his caveat that departures will depend on "conditions on the ground"
Few joined with Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., in categorically rejecting Obama's description of vital U.S. interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, his deployment of 30,000 additional troops, and his plan for eventual withdrawal from both countries. "I'm still not convinced," Murtha said. "I do not see an achievable goal."
But full-throated endorsements were rare, especially among Democrats, many of whom have questioned the troop escalation and what it will cost. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., No. 3 in the Senate leadership, said he will "weigh carefully" Obama's words. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Congress and the American people will "fully examine" the president's plan.
Congress has little control over the strategy beyond the money to pay for it. Murtha — chairman of the subcommittee that will consider the funding — said he expected the White House to seek $40 billion by the spring to pay for the additional troops, or $10 billion more a year than the president estimated in his speech. Still, even he conceded that the funding is likely to be approved.
In the first of several hearings to explain the policy, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate that "the pieces are being put in place to make real and measurable progress in Afghanistan over the next 18 to 24 months. The president's decision offers the best possibility to decisively change the momentum in Afghanistan and fundamentally alter the strategic equation in Pakistan and Central Asia, all necessary to protect the United States, our allies and our vital interests."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "Among a range of difficult choices, this is the best way."
Gates and Clinton appeared, along with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before the Senate and House Armed Services committees on Wednesday, and will do so again today before both Foreign Affairs committees. Next week, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, will testify along with Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul.
In an opening statement and subsequent questioning, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the president's decision to set a date of July 2011 to begin withdrawing troops is a "reasonable way under the circumstances to produce the sense of urgency in the Afghan government that has been lacking up to now."
But Levin, who has pressed the administration to beef up Afghan security forces before sending more U.S. combat troops, questioned Obama's priorities and his math. In Helmand province, where 10,000 Marines are battling the Taliban, there are only about 2,000 Afghan forces, he said. "The desired ratio, according to Pentagon doctrine, is close to the opposite: three Afghans for one U.S. soldier or Marine."
"If so," he said, "doubling the number of U.S. troops" in southern Afghanistan, as Obama plans, "will only worsen the ratio." The administration has set an initial target of increasing the size of the Afghan army from 90,000 to 134,000 by the end of next year.
The testiest exchanges took place over the question of when, and under what conditions, U.S. troops — which will total about 100,000 with the new deployments — will begin to leave.
Levin cited "some confusion" about the president's pledge to begin drawing down U.S. forces in July 2011, asking whether it was "conditions-based or not."
"No, sir," Gates replied without elaboration.
But Gates and the others began to hedge when Sen. John McCain of Arizona — who was among the many Republicans who applauded what they called Obama's troop "surge" — returned to the withdrawal question. Obama had made "two incompatible statements" on the subject, McCain said. "You either have a winning strategy . . . and then once it's succeeded then we withdraw . . . or, as the president said, we will have a date beginning withdrawal of July 2011. Which is it? . . . . You can't have both."
Gates said the administration has scheduled "a thorough review" of its strategy next December and will "take a hard look" at its withdrawal plans "if it appears the strategy's not working."
A number of anti-war activists attended the hearings. "Hillary, you know better," Medea Benjamin, a leader of the group Code Pink, shouted at Clinton.
"Admiral, could you stop the war, please?" she hollered at Mullen, who took his seat, and told the committee, "I support fully and without hesitation the president's decision."
Gates, who served as defense secretary during the final two years of George W. Bush's administration, made several comparisons between Bush's policy of gradually turning over security responsibility in Iraq to that country's government, and Obama's plan to prepare Afghan forces to accept such responsibility.
Afghanistan, Gates said, "will look a lot like Iraq, where some districts and provinces will be able to be turned over fairly quickly, with the U.S. in a tactical and then strategic overwatch — sort of cavalry over the hill, if you will, for a time." Gates did not mention that the deadlines for the turnover in Iraq were repeatedly pushed back before a final U.S. withdrawal date of the end of 2011 was set in a bilateral agreement between Baghdad and Washington.