By John T. Bennett and Alicia M. Cohn - 06/23/11 06:45 PM EDT
President Obama overruled his military commanders when he set in place a plan to remove more U.S. forces from Afghanistan — and faster — than they recommended, senior officials said Thursday.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, in unusually blunt fashion, told a House panel Thursday that Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal plan is "more aggressive" than he initially wanted.
The candid comments from the senior military official came about 14 hours after Obama announced his plan to pull out 10,000 troops this year, and 20,000 by the end of next summer.
"It was more than I recommended," Mullen said of the figure.
There was whispering for weeks in defense circles that U.S. commanders and civilian Pentagon officials wanted far fewer troops to be withdrawn.
"More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course," Mullen said. "But that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the president, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take. I believe he has done so."
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it is “understandable” that military commanders would prefer to have as many troops for as long as possible.
"But any military commander with the level of expertise and experience that Gen. Petraeus has also knows that what he wants is just part of the overall decision matrix and that there are other factors at work,” Clinton said.
She was referring to Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan who has been tapped to be CIA director.
Missing from the president’s Wednesday evening address on Afghanistan were terms like “conditions on the ground” and other phrases that played prominently in previous speeches and public comments by U.S. officials. Those phrases were designed to give leaders wiggle room on troop-level pronouncements.
Obama made clear during his speech that he is serious about winding down the decade-old war.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), vice chairman of the House panel, said he understands military commanders will have “flexibility within the deadlines” Obama staked out Wednesday evening.
“That tells me there is no flexibility of the deadlines,” Thornberry said.
Mullen and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy repeatedly said the Pentagon believes Obama’s drawdown plan will not hinder the military’s efforts to achieve the White House’s objectives in Afghanistan.
That objective, as first described by incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, is to create enough stability in Afghanistan that Taliban and al Qaeda elements cannot return to launch attacks on the United States.
The officials stressed repeatedly during their testimony that, for Obama’s plan to be successful, Afghans must step up — and they said American forces would continue helping them achieve that.
Clinton said Afghan security forces have been built up enough over the past two and a half years that they have already begun to take the lead on security in some parts of their country.
“So-called 'nation-building' raises a lot of questions in people’s minds,” she said. “That is not what we think we’re doing or what we intend to do.”
However, the U.S. will continue to provide assistance to the Afghanistan military and police forces even after the U.S. pulls out, she said.
“It will be something that will be a lot cheaper than what we’re doing now,” Clinton said, emphasizing that other NATO countries will continue to provide assistance.
Mullen acknowledged keeping the current footprint in Afghanistan would have generated its own problems.
Keeping around 100,000 troops in place would have sent a signal to an already shaky Afghan government that it could simply continue to rely on the U.S. military, Mullen said.
What's more, "We would have signaled to the enemy and to our regional partners that the Taliban still possessed strength enough to warrant the full measure of our presence," Mullen said. "They do not."
But he says the plan will bring its own benefits, such as being able to "reset our forces more quickly" and cutting the massive costs of the 10-year-old conflict.
The chairman said he, Petraeus and other top generals support the drawdown plan.
Mullen and Flournoy stressed that the drawdown plan is not, as she put it, "a rush to the exits."
"Even after the recovery of the surge forces, totaling 33,000 troops, we will still have about 68,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan," Flournoy said. "That's more than twice the number as when President Obama took office."
Panel Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said he is worried the Obama plan "could jeopardize the hard-won gains our troops and allies have made over the past 18 months, and potentially the safety of the remaining forces."
McKeon also is concerned the plan will lead Taliban elements to resist coming to the negotiating table, opting instead to wait out the American military presence.
Several of his GOP colleagues said the pullout plan would make it less safe for U.S. forces there. A few questioned whether the president was moving away from the counterinsurgency strategy he set in place after taking office and toward a counterterrorism one, which requires fewer troops.
"The strategy is a counterinsurgency strategy," Mullen said, noting there is a big counterterrorism element to the broader counterinsurgency approach.
This story was first posted at 10:34 a.m. and was last updated at 2:45 p.m.