WASHINGTON (CN) – In a Capitol Hill blitz, State Sec. Hillary Clinton and Defense Sec. Robert Gates on Wednesday defended President Obama’s Afghan policy in appearances before the House and the Senate. The troop increase element of Obama’s newly stated policy earned broad support but the exit strategy drew sharp rebukes from Republicans. “It should end when we have achieved our goals,” Arizona Republican Sen. McCain said of the war.
But Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich insinuated that Republicans were making a mountain out of a mole hill.
“This whole issue of withdrawal is really being torn apart,” he told fellow members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noting that the drawdown goal set for July of 2011 is vague. The drawdown could be 100 troops or 50,000 troops, he said.
During the hearing, Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker criticized the Obama administration’s “contradictory policy,” asking, “When in history has a commander announced both a surge and a withdrawal at the same time?” He then predicted that the Left will “rise up and protest vehemently” over the policy.
Opinion polls do show that liberals oppose the surge, but the Democratic senators appeared to have few concerns about Obama’s policy. They said it should be clear that the United States does not intend to occupy Afghanistan.
Gates explained the pullback date, saying that unlike Iraq, Afghanistan does not harbor a strong desire for Americans to leave. He said this is why a drawdown date for Afghanistan is especially important- to urge Afghanis to build up forces for their own security. “We have to build a fire under them, frankly,” he said.
Obama announced Tuesday night that he would send an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan, brining the total to roughly 100,000, and said that the surge in troops would “allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.”
While Obama’s wording seems to make his announcement a far cry from a pledge, Gates said during the hearing that the date to begin the withdrawal is unconditional, spurring a scramble from Republicans, who seemed to back Gates into a tight spot.
“Will the date of withdrawal be based on an arbitrary date regardless of conditions on the ground?” McCain asked. Gates ultimately conceded that, “the president always has the freedom to adjust his decision.”
McCain argued that the drawdown date sends the message that the United States in not committed to winning the war, that it will “embolden enemies,” and added that he couldn’t understand why July of 2011 was chosen in particular.
The administration officials maintained that the drawdown date is a necessary part of winning the war by spurring Afghani self-sufficiency. And in explaining the date, Gates said the surge in Iraq had lasted 14 months between 2007 and 2008, and that the 18 month surge in Afghanistan could give troops enough time to fight back the Taliban.
Graham, towards the end of the hearing, asked the three administration officials – of which Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen was one – whether they recognize that Obama’s new policy is the last chance to get it right in Afghanistan. They all answered yes, but Clinton added sharply, “And we also realized how sad it was that we were trying to make that decision eight years later.”
Some have questioned why a surge should be conducted when experts agree that al Qaeda has been mostly chased from Afghanistan, and given that Obama has limited the role of the United States in Afghanistan to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.” But Gates defended the surge. “Rolling back the Taliban is necessary to the defeat of al Qaeda,” he said.
Clinton and Gates took the chance to elaborate on the administration’s plan for Afghanistan. Gates said the extra forces will arrive in Afghanistan within two to three weeks, with deployment running through the first part of 2010.
The officials added that they hope a rise in Afghan security fighters follows, and said that the military ultimately aims for a three to one ratio of American to Afghan security forces by next summer. In many regions, American troops outnumber Afghan troops.
Allied fighters are also expected to grow in number soon, with Gates saying he is looking to NATO to contribute 5,000 to 7,000 more troops of its own.
Clinton said the administration hopes Afghanistan government will control the majority of its country in three years and that it will be responsible for entire country within five years,
Gates also told senators that he would like if the United States were open to keeping a non-combative military presence in Afghanistan to help with training and other objectives, much like the military does in other countries.
A small group of protestors held signs reading “Health Care, Not Warfare,” and, “Surge Big Mistake.”
The three administrations officials also testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.