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What to Listen for in Today’s Afghanistan Testimony

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are set to answer questions on Afghanistan from the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning. Here’s what to listen for.

  • Dwell time. Gates was famously skeptical earlier this year of any troop increases over the 30,000 that Gen. David McKiernan, the ex-commander of the Afghanistan war, requested, in large part because of a long-standing plan of his to increase the time home between deployments of active-duty soldiers. That plan is imperiled by the needs of the “extended surge.” And that cost President Obama the support of the progressive veterans group VoteVets. But last night on a conference call, a senior administration official said that Gates’ plan to extend so-called “dwell time” should proceed apace. How? Look to see if Gates is pressed here.

2.** Why 30,000 troops? And will there be more?** This one’s pretty self-explanatory. The Obama administration wants to wind down the war, gradually, starting in July 2011. But things happen. Will any of the three senior administration officials rule out additional troops? And will any of them explain precisely why a U.S. troop size of 98,000 is necessary and sufficient for success?

  • The “immediate impact” development shift. Obama said last night that the development mission will shift away from big reconstruction projects to an agriculture-focused agenda, so mostly-agricultural Afghanistan can see “immediate impact.” I’m also hearing at least one senior official talk about restricting much of its Kabul-based governance assistance effort to “key ministries” — which means the security-focused ministries of Defense and Interior, in order to prop up the Army and Police that will begin taking over security responsibilities in July 2011. Listen for Secretary Clinton to talk about the logic of this shift, and why she thinks Hamid Karzai’s government won’t perceive it as a measure to undercut his authority.
  • Will the United States withdraw troops while al-Qaeda safe havens still exist in Pakistan? If you read my stuff consistently, you know this is my number-one question. The logic of drawing down after July 2011 and turning over security responsibilities to the Afghans is premised on what’s sustainable from a U.S. perspective and what the Afghans will tolerate. But the overall strategy is based on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda in its Pakistani safe havens. Which goal is the overriding one? Obama elided this issue last night. Will Gates, Clinton or Mullen address it?

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