Patience is urged in Afghanistan

  • New York Times
  • June 16, 2010 - 7:56 PM

WASHINGTON - Senior Pentagon officials urged patience Wednesday as U.S. troops begin operations to stabilize the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Mideast, returned to Capitol Hill to offer a full-throated endorsement of President Obama's order to pull out of Afghanistan starting next summer.

"As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Both Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked the Senate -- and, by extension, the American people -- for time and understanding as the military carried out the mission across Afghanistan, especially in the south. A number of senators responded with pointed questions about the increasing casualties and the continuing fight in Marjah, a Taliban haven in the south that is not yet under control.

Buildup still in progress

Gates responded that nearly 10,000 of the 30,000 U.S. troops scheduled to be part of the buildup had yet to arrive in Afghanistan, that the military was "only a few months" into the execution of Obama's new strategy and that he himself was satisfied with the progress so far.

During his separate session before the Armed Services Committee, Petraeus was given a chance for what he called "a redo hearing" -- to make up for testimony cut short on Tuesday when he momentarily collapsed. He used the opportunity to more forcefully state that he backed the president's timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee's Democratic chairman, was especially rough on Petraeus during Tuesday's session, clearly dissatisfied with how the commander characterized his endorsement of the July 2011 withdrawal deadline. During that hearing, Levin reminded Petraeus of his oath to provide Congress with his best professional assessments. But in response, Levin had received a vague answer -- described by Petraeus as "a qualified yes" -- in defense of the timetable.

Given an opportunity Wednesday to more clearly define his view, Petraeus came with a prepared statement that stressed how much he did indeed "support and agree" with the decision to set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. He explained that the date would only begin a process to hand over security to Afghan forces and that the pace for carrying out "a responsible drawdown" would be determined by security conditions a year from now.

Levin, McCain disagree

"I am glad to hear General Petraeus express his support for the decision to begin U.S. troop reductions in Afghanistan in July 2011," Levin said. "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."

But Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the committee, continued to argue that the decision to announce a withdrawal date in advance "does not bode well for success in Afghanistan."

In his testimony, Gates compared the senators' doubts about how things were progressing in Afghanistan to what went on during the troop surge in Iraq, which occurred when Gates was defense secretary under President George W. Bush. Gates said he felt "a certain sense of déjà vu, because I was sitting here getting the same kind of questions in June of 2007, when we had just barely gotten the surge forces into Iraq at that point."

Gates predicted that the United States would be able to show "clear progress" in Afghanistan by the end of this year. Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., flatly asked Gates if he had confidence in the top leadership of Afghanistan, a reference to President Hamid Karzai. "Yes, I do," Gates swiftly replied.

Mullen acknowledged that "we all have angst" about Afghanistan, but "I think we will know by the end of the year, obviously, where we are with respect to reversing the momentum."

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