At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday on strategy for the war in Afghanistan, a discussion of the Obama administration’s approach to securing the southern Afghan city of Kandahar — a crucial test for the escalated war — was overshadowed by a partisan dispute over the meaning of the administration’s July 2011 “inflection point” for transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
[Security1] Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, and Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, two architects of the administration’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, told incredulous Republican senators on the committee that the rate of troop reductions after July 2011 will be “determined by conditions” on the ground, a formulation repeated by Petraeus at least five times during the three-hour hearing. Both Petraeus and Flournoy expressed confidence that the Afghan government understands the American desire for a “long-term relationship” with Afghanistan long after the United States withdraws the bulk of its troops, providing specific commitments to Afghan security, governance and economic development over the “next five to ten years,” as Flournoy put it.
But several Republicans on the panel expressed dismay that the administration set a date to begin security transfers, and argued that establishing it created confusion in the region over the United States’ commitment to waging the war, including within Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said it was unwise for the administration to leave the impression, in the reported words of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, that the date is “etched in stone,” since McCain said Afghan government officials have told him the date makes them doubt the administration’s resolve.
Yet Petraeus affirmed that “July 2011 is etched in stone.” Prompted by a question from Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), he reiterated that “July 2011 is the point at which, again, the term ‘responsible drawdown’ of the surge forces begins at a rate to be determined by the conditions” on the ground. The date itself won’t prompt the U.S. to “race for the exist,” Petraeus said, pointing to Obama’s West Point declaration that success in Afghanistan is a “vital national security interest,” a phraseology that Petraeus said signaled steadfastness to the military.
That still didn’t satisfy several Republicans. Late in the hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) walked out of the room after declaring himself “confused” by the date and the officials’ explanation of it. “I doubt that the enemy is certain,” he said, leaving before Flournoy could respond to his point.
Addressing a different aspect of the meaning of July 2011, both Petraeus and Flournoy said it was “not the intention” or “expectation” to send any additional troops to Afghanistan after the date passes. But Petraeus said he considered it part of his “responsibility to the troopers” not to explicitly rule out recommending reinforcements should circumstances warrant. He said that “despite the losses, despite the setbacks,” the trajectory of the war effort was “upward,” describing counterinsurgency campaigns as a “roller coaster” instead of a glide path, a point echoed by Flournoy. Petraeus pointed to an affirmation Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the war, made to the committee after Obama’s most recent 30,000-troop increase that sufficient forces existed in Afghanistan to break the Taliban’s momentum by July 2011, and Petraeus expressed confidence that the mission would succeed.
Faith in the strategy, Petraeus added, came from the performance of President Hamid Karzai. He and Flournoy rejected a New York Times account last week, based heavily on a cashiered member of Karzai’s government, that Karzai had lost confidence in U.S. will to fight the Taliban. They pointed to remarks Karzai made on Sunday to a Kandahar shura that pledged support for the ongoing “rising tide of security” in the city and earned popular affirmation for impending military operations. But that was as deeply as senators probed the two senior officials on the war and governance strategy for what McChrystal has described as a crucial operation.
Apparently seeing a political opportunity, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a reluctant supporter of Obama’s tripling of troop levels in Afghanistan, quickly distributed a printed statement to reporters at the hearing that highlighted Petraeus’s unwillingness to break with the administration over the impending troop reductions that will follow July 2011. “I am glad to hear Gen. Petraeus express his support for the decision to begin troop reductions in Afghanistan in July 2011,” it read. “I strongly believe it is essential for success in Afghanistan that everyone understand the urgency with which the Afghans need to take responsibility for their own security.”
The hearing Wednesday was a continuation of a Tuesday session in which Petraeus took ill, briefly losing consciousness from what he described as dehydration.
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