Gates opposes troop withdrawal deadline for Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he opposed setting deadlines for U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as he defended President Barack Obama’s new war strategy.

 Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen on Wednesday made their first rounds on Capitol Hill to publicly sell Obama’s Afghanistan war plan to conflicted lawmakers still trying to digest the president’s announcement.

 

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Obama announced on Tuesday he will send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, some as early as the next few weeks. The president also announced his goal of beginning a U.S. troop withdrawal by the summer of 2011.

Gates said he agrees with the president’s July 2011 timeline but he would not agree with any efforts to set a deadline for complete troop withdrawal.

 “I have adamantly opposed deadlines. I opposed them in Iraq, and I oppose deadlines in Afghanistan. But what the president has announced is the beginning of a process, not the end of a process. And it is clear that this will be a gradual process and, as he said last night, based on conditions on the ground. So there is no deadline for the withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan,” Gates told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday afternoon. “July 2011 is not a cliff.”

 Gates’s comments came after lawmakers, particularly Republicans, attacked Obama’s plan to begin thinning out U.S. forces in the South Asian country by July 2011.

 Earlier in the day, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Obama’s presidential rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), lamented the “arbitrary” deadline, which is not based on conditions on the ground in Afghanistan.

 Gates, who found himself in front of Congress defending the second surge of his tenure, stressed that the United States will thin its forces in Afghanistan as it turns over more districts and more provinces to Afghans. The transition will first start in “uncontested areas” and will ensure that the Afghans are capable of taking care of their own security.

 “We are not going to throw these guys in the swimming pool and walk away,” Gates said.

 Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the administration will thoroughly review the war’s progress in December 2010 and evaluate whether the objective of starting the transfer will be met.

 Meanwhile, Mullen told House lawmakers the timeline is part of a “transfer and transition strategy” and stressed that without the involvement of the Afghan government and security forces, the war in Afghanistan cannot be won.

 Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, raised concerns about the rapid deployment of a large number of troops without enough Afghan forces to partner with, because there is a shortage in Afghan troops.

 Mullen stressed that by mid-2011 the military leaders will know whether forces in Afghanistan will succeed. He said the date is not arbitrary but reflects the two years the Marines would have operated in the Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold.

 The 30,000 additional forces will be deployed and concentrated in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. Mullen said that the senior U.S. general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, will use the additional troops to conduct “more focused counterinsurgency operations that enhance population security against the Taliban in south and east Afghanistan.”

 Other Democrats in the House expressed befuddlement with Obama’s new war plan.

 “I’m really struggling with this one,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  “It seems a bunch of years ago I participated in a clunkers-for-cash program. My president sold me a clunker, and I paid for it with my children’s and my constituents’ children and grandchildren’s cash.

 “As of 8 o’clock last night, do we have a new war? Or do we have an old war under new ownership?” Ackerman said.

 Another New York Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel, said he was willing to give the president “the benefit of the doubt,” but that his fear is that the U.S. could “easily be bogged down in endless war.”

 The administration officials all sought to assuage any concerns that the commitment in Afghanistan would be “open-ended.”

 “The essence of our civil-military plan is to clear, hold, build and transfer,” Gates said in his prepared testimony.

 Mullen said he expected to see headway in Afghanistan in the next 18 to 24 months.

 “No commitment of additional force in the number we plan for Afghanistan is without risk,” Mullen said. “The Joint Chiefs and I assess the risks to our military forces and our military missions, at home and abroad, from this force deployment decision to be acceptable.”

 Obama’s envoys warned Congress there would be severe consequences if the Taliban and al Qaeda aren’t defeated in South Asia.

 Mullen told lawmakers in both chambers that South Asia is “the epicenter of global Islamic extremism.”

 “The challenges we face in Afghanistan and Pakistan are great, and our interests there are significant,” Mullen said in his testimony.

 “If the United States should be hit again, I remain convinced that the planning, training and funding for such an attack will emanate there,” he added.

 Gates told senators that failure in Afghanistan would mean a Taliban takeover of much, if not most, of the country and “likely a renewed civil war.” He called the current security deterioration in Afghanistan and the growing influence of the Taliban “unacceptable.”

 Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the top defense appropriator in the House, said Wednesday that he does not believe Afghanistan poses a national-security threat to the United States.

 Meanwhile, at a press briefing in Afghanistan, McChrystal said that violence in Afghanistan went up 60 percent from 2008 to 2009. From 2007 to 2009, it went up about 300 percent, he noted.

 “I believe that by next summer the uplift of new forces will make a difference on the ground significantly,” McChrystal said, according to a transcript of the briefing. “I believe that by [this time next year] we’ll see a level of progress that will convince us that we can clearly articulate the progress and predict the effectiveness of our operations.”