Defense secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the nation’s top military officer laid out a muscular defense of President Obama’s decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan on Captiol Hill on Wednesday, but members of Congress of both parties objected to major parts of the new strategy.
At a crowded hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who last year ran against Mr. Obama for president, sharply questioned Mr. Obama’s plan to begin withdrawing the additional American forces by July 2011.
Senator McCain said it was “logically incoherent” to say that the withdrawal would begin that summer, “no matter what,” but also say, as the administration does, that the exit date would also depend on conditions on the ground.
The answer, after a sometimes tense back-and-forth with Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was that the administration would review the situation in Afghanistan in December 2010 and then “evaluate,”
as Mr. Gates put it, whether it would be possible for Mr. Obama to begin withdrawals in the summer of 2011.
“Then it makes no sense for him to announce the date,” Mr. McCain retorted. In short, he said, “that gives the wrong impression to our friends, it’s the wrong impression to give our enemies.”
Later in the session, Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, said, “It strikes me as that the Taliban has been emboldened quite aggressively the last several years without any type of deadline.”
Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the committee, questioned whether sending so many additional troops might keep the Afghans from building up their security forces on their own.
“Where I have questions is whether the rapid deployment of a large number of U.S. combat forces, without an adequate number of Afghan security forces for our troops to partner with, serves that mission,” Mr. Levin said.
In his opening statement, Mr. Gates, who pushed for the 30,000 additional troops and was singled out by the White House as influential in Mr. Obama’s decision, sharply differed with some of Mr. Obama’s advisers
who have argued that the United States should focus on rooting out Al Qaeda from Pakistan, and that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not present a serious long-term threat
to the national security of the United States.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who heads the Senate’s homeland security committee, said he was convinced that “there is no substitute for victory
over the Islamist extremists and terrorists in Afghanistan. A war of necessity must not just be fought; it must, of necessity, be won.”
Mr. Levin said he was troubled by the numbers being floated. In the vitally important Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan, he said, the current ratio of American to Afghan troops is 5 to 1. “Doubling the number of U.S. troops in the south will only worsen a ratio under which our forces are already matched up with fewer Afghan troops than they can and should partner with,” he said.
When pressed by Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, why the United States had to invest so much military power and money in Afghanistan when Al Qaeda still had the ability to establish safe havens in other countries
, Mr. Gates replied that Afghanistan was unique.
Not only was it the place where the 2001 attacks against the United States were launched, he said, it “is still the wellspring of inspiration
for extremist jihadism everywhere.”
He said that the “guidance and strategic leadership” for Al Qaeda comes from the group’s leaders who are in the border area with Pakistan
, and that there is an “unholy alliance” that has developed in the past year between Al Qaeda, the Taliban in Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“And these people work off of each other’s mythology
, off of each other’s narrative, and the success of one contributes to the success of the other,” Mr. Gates said.
He added, “If anything, the situation, I think, is more serious today than it was a year ago because of the attacks of the Taliban in Pakistan on Pakistan, and the effort of al Qaeda in collusion with the Taliban in Pakistan to try and destabilize Pakistan itself.”
Promising that he could “bring this war to a successful conclusion,” Mr. Obama set out a strategy that would seek to reverse Taliban gains in large parts of Afghanistan, better protect the Afghan people, increase the pressure on Afghanistan to build its own military capacity and a more effective government and step up attacks on Al Qaeda in Pakistan