Petraeus grilled on ‘mixed messages’ on Afghanistan pullout

Senate Republicans on Tuesday used Gen. David Petraeus’s trip to Capitol Hill to argue that the Obama administration and Pentagon have sent mixed messages about when the U.S. will leave Afghanistan. 

The White House and Defense Department have been unclear over whether U.S. forces are to be withdrawn later this year or if most troops will remain in the war-torn country until 2014. 

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“We’re talking about leaving and staying at the same time,” complained Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) Tuesday during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing at which Petraeus testified on the war effort. 

Graham and other Republicans argued these mixed messages are hurting the war effort, and they suggested it could also be to blame for a lack of support from the public. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday found that 64 percent of those surveyed said they believed the Afghan conflict is no longer worth fighting.

“The problem is not that this is not worth fighting — because I believe it is,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). The bigger problem is “mixed messages” from senior administration officials about withdrawal timelines and operational strategies, he added.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also expressed concerns “that we’re sending mixed messages to the American people and the Afghanis.”

Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said promises to withdraw some troops this summer while also focusing plans on a 2014 handover to indigenous security forces “are not mutually exclusive.”

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, who testified with Petraeus, said the Pentagon is on track to begin removing a to-be-determined number of U.S. forces from Afghanistan this summer. Those troops were part of a recent “surge” of American forces to buttress the Afghanistan mission.

Flournoy also told the panel that the transition to Afghan forces will be a “process, not an event,” with decisions based on conditions in specific areas.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the panel’s ranking member, said that instead of a withdrawal of American forces this summer, a “reinvestment” of U.S. troops within Afghanistan might be required. He said this would involve shifting forces from less secure to more secure areas.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the panel, said that the Pentagon has been sending two messages but that they are not inconsistent. 

He noted Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s recent comment to his panel that the July partial-withdrawal goal is necessary to compel Afghan officials to “take ownership of the war” and give them “a sense of urgency.” 

Levin then referred to Gates’s remark to NATO ministers that there has been “too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right.”

“The unifying thread in the two messages is that both are needed for success of the mission,” Levin said. “They are part and parcel … of Gen. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy.”

Levin said he would continue to press President Obama to approve a proposal to swell Afghan security, police and military forces by 70,000 individuals.

Gates has approved that plan and sent it to Obama’s desk for a final decision, Flournoy said, adding Pentagon officials “expect a decision soon.”

Gates supports an Afghanistan security force “between 352,000 and 378,000,” she said.

In his opening testimony, Petraeus urged senators to “take a sufficiently long view” of the Afghanistan war, which is the longest in U.S. history. 

Petraeus said U.S. and NATO officials “need to focus not just on the year ahead” but on ensuring Afghan forces can take the lead in most operations “by the end of 2014.”

To that end, “we need to take a substantially long view to ensure progress is sustained,” Petraeus said.

Petraeus said U.S. and NATO troops had won “hard-fought” success in 2010 and 2011 against the Taliban, but that these achievements were “fragile and reversible.”

A few Republican senators offered doubts about success in Afghanistan. 

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) said that he was “not too impressed” with the training of Afghan security, military and police forces during a recent visit. 

He pressed Petraeus and Flournoy on whether the U.S. “is doing it alone,” with its NATO partners doing virtually nothing to help train Afghan forces.

Petraeus responded that U.S. allies have been increasing their pledges to step up training efforts.

Brown, who is up for reelection next year, took exception with Graham’s assessment that U.S. forces are winning in Afghanistan. 

Minutes before, Graham had said the U.S. was not losing the war. “Winning is hard to define — but I’ll know losing when I see it,” Graham said. 

“Sen. Graham said he knows what losing is,” Brown said. “But he didn’t explain what winning is.” 

Critics of the war on both sides of the political aisle often point out administration and Pentagon officials cannot describe what an American victory there would look like.

Gates recently told House appropriators that the goal “is not to build a 21st-century Afghanistan.”

For Washington, victory is a cocktail of developments that includes establishment of an Afghan government that can provide for its own security, govern itself and “see to the needs of its people,” Petraeus said.

An American victory also includes ensuring Afghanistan does not again become “an al Qaeda sanctuary.”



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