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Crucial Senate Hearing on Afghanistan Scheduled for Tomorrow

As I reported today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ thoughts on the proper U.S. force posture in Afghanistan “is a work in progress,” according to Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. If there’s a Senate hearing that stands a chance of tipping the undecided — or even changing minds — it’s tomorrow’s Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

The witness list at Senate hearings often tends to the mushy center or the ignorantly dogmatic, instead of analysts capable of proceeding from firm principles, tracing an argument’s logic and dealing with its uncomfortable implications. Not so tomorrow. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the committee’s chairman, is calling John Nagl, the president of the Center for a New American Security; Steve Biddle, the Brookings military expert; and Rory Stewart, the head of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Expect a heavy hearing. Nagl is a counterinsurgent’s counterinsurgent, but even he’s expressed some skepticism about another troop increase, preferring to bolster Afghan security capabilities while cautioning it’s not a zero-sum choice. Biddle, an adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy review, has compared Afghanistan to Vietnam and said U.S. interests in Afghanistan are such that calculating to stay and prosecute the war is a “close call.” Stewart caused a major storm in Washington foreign policy circles when he told the Financial Times that the policymaking apparatus is a rigged game:

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …’”

Kerry compared Afghanistan to Vietnam in the January confirmation hearing for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, but has long been a cautious advocate for prosecuting the war there. In a statement, he said:

“I am concerned because our troops are being asked to sacrifice more and more at a moment of growing doubt about our path, our plan, and our progress,” said Chairman Kerry. “We’ve got to focus on our key goals: help the Afghans keep their nation from becoming a terrorist sanctuary, and prevent an insecure Afghanistan from destabilizing one of the world’s most dangerous regions.”

It goes down tomorrow at 2:30 p.m.

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