Gen. Petraeus to be pressed on Afghan war’s costs, timeline

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, will take to Capitol Hill this week to defend the Obama administration’s new Afghanistan timeline, as lawmakers and voters grow skeptical of the war effort.

Obama administration officials say most U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan until 2014 — or beyond. But with the nation’s fiscal woes dominating most Washington debates, worries about the decade-old war now include operational complexities and the tens of billions of dollars a year it costs.

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Congressional aides on both sides indicate GOP and Democratic lawmakers will be eager for Petraeus to explain how recent gains can be sustained long enough to begin talking seriously about a complete withdrawal. 

One senior GOP aide said members of that party will press the general to explain if recent gains can lead to “a lasting strategic victory” for the U.S. 

Republican lawmakers plan to press Petraeus to describe under what conditions he and administration officials would approve the redeployment of some U.S. forces this summer, the GOP aide said, vowing “tough questions” about building up Afghan security forces.

Democratic members will “applaud Petraeus for his recent tactical gains and will prod him on how he plans on cementing these gains and begin to transition U.S. forces out of Afghanistan,” a Democratic aide said.

Hearings Tuesday and Wednesday before the Senate and House Armed Services committees will shed light on whether support among Democrats for President Obama’s war policy is eroding.

“Ironically, President Obama probably can count more on Republicans to support his war strategy in Afghanistan than he can count on Democrats,” said Jim Phillips, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “But support among Democrats is likely to be much softer and more perishable.” 

Numerous polls show American citizens of all political stripes souring on the Afghanistan war.

Some senior House Republicans and aides have said they are worried conservative Tea Party-affiliated freshmen might form a formidable voting bloc with liberal Democrats to oppose some defense programs and war policies.

Some political analysts see an anti-interventionist bent to the Tea Party movement. 

Not Phillips, who said: “Although much ink has been spilled on the Tea Party’s isolationist tendencies regarding the war in Afghanistan, I think that most of the newly elected Republicans will support the war effort.” 

And while some are watching to see whether the fiscally conservative House freshmen zero in on war costs, the administration should expect similar concerns from its own ranks.

Democratic senators in recent weeks have questioned whether Washington is forcing Kabul to build military and security forces too large for Afghanistan to pay for.

“Once we’re gone I think we’re going to be on the hook to help pay for this [Afghan] military for some time,” Senate Armed Services Committee member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said last month.

It is “clear” Kabul cannot afford the military, security and police forces the U.S. is building, some senators said.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman, said Washington “cannot carry the $12 billion alone.”

The Congressional Research Service has estimated the Pentagon had spent almost $350 billion on the Afghanistan conflict through fiscal 2010.

Establishment Republicans plan to ask Petraeus what “resources” he needs to shore up recent gains, the GOP aide said. That will give the general a chance to float a wish list of sorts.

Meantime, frustration with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, accused of widespread corruption, is another problem about which lawmakers from both parties are growing increasingly concerned.

House Appropriations Defense subcommittee member Jim Moran (D-Va.) recently wondered aloud if that alleged malfeasance is simply too much for Washington to overcome.

Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, said Petraeus will have to face questions about “tougher challenges [that] have to do with the Karzai and Pakistani governments, and their roles in helping stabilize the situation — and these are inherently complex and frustrating matters with serious implications for the war effort.”

Aides and analysts posited questions about Karzai-regime corruption and the buildup of Afghanistan’s indigenous forces as the inquiries lawmakers are likely to press hardest.

Phillips added two more issues lawmakers are expected to inquire about:

“To what degree has the spike in Pakistani-American tensions affected the situation inside Afghanistan? 

“To what extent has the surge in forces in the Helmand valley disrupted Taliban finances related to the poppy trade?

“Disrupting the opium poppy trade could have a disproportionate effect on insurgent operations by reducing the ability of the Taliban to buy the support of the Afghans who sign up to fight to earn daily wages,” he said.