Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Senators Blast Obama Afghanistan Policy

Gen. David Petraeus briefly collapsed during questioning about Afghanistan strategy Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Wall Street Journal WASHINGTON—The Obama administration's Afghan war effort came under blistering bipartisan attack in the Senate Tuesday, in one of the clearest signs yet that uneven progress on the ground risks undermining domestic support in the months leading up to a key December review of war strategy. The top Democrat and the top Republican on the Senate committee responsible for military oversight—both of whom were strong supporters of the White House's decision to surge 30,000 troops into Afghanistan last year—sharply questioned administration claims of progress in southern Afghanistan, where the bulk of new troops has been deployed. Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, opened a Capitol Hill hearing on the war by reading a litany of recent setbacks in Afghanistan, including the "return of Taliban intimidation and assassinations" in Marjah, site of a much-touted offensive earlier this year, and the questionable role of power brokers, "including members of the Karzai family" in the south. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), the top Republican on the panel and long one of the war's staunchest defenders, was even more critical, saying there were multiple negative trends inside Afghanistan, making him concerned there may be a "mounting crisis" in the campaign. "The larger trend that underlies all the others [is] the mounting loss of confidence in America's commitment to succeed that seems to be shared by both our friends and enemies in Afghanistan, as well as its neighbors," Mr. McCain said. Taliban Kill Official Vital to U.S. Plans Most of the concerns raised by both men focused on the coming operation in Kandahar, which Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization commander in Kabul, recently said would begin later than originally anticipated. Mr. Levin harshly criticized the lack of trained Afghan forces participating in the operation, and Mr. McCain warned that the delay "is not projecting an air of confidence and success." The U.S. suffered a significant setback in the Kandahar campaign Tuesday when the Taliban assassinated the leader of one of the most important districts in the region, Arghandab Gov. Hajji Abdul Jabbar, who died when a car bomb exploded next to his vehicle in Kandahar city, Afghan officials said. A priority for the coalition has been to build Mr. Jabbar, a former anti-Soviet guerrilla, into a figure of real authority—in part by channeling through his office farming-aid projects financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The rising level of concern about the war effort in the U.S., shared by some military and civilian officials within the administration, is focusing increased attention on President Barack Obama's decision to begin U.S. withdrawals in July 2011, always one of the most controversial aspects of his war plan. Senior U.S. and Western officials acknowledged that they have done a poor job explaining to allies in the region that the U.S.-led coalition will remain committed to Afghanistan even as withdrawals begin next summer. One Western diplomat who has discussed the issue with the Obama administration said allies will attempt to make a stronger case in the coming months. More interactive graphics and photos "Up until this point, I don't think we have quite got that message across yet," said the diplomat. "People are still focusing on July 2011 as an issue unto itself." But current and former U.S. officials said there is increasing evidence that the short time frame is forcing the key actors in the war—particularly Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Pakistani military leadership—to begin cutting deals to ensure their position in Afghanistan, a process that may be exacerbating sectarianism in a country where the insurgency is dominated by the Pashtun majority. The debate over the July 2011 date dominated Tuesday's hearing, which was cut short after Gen. David Petraeus, overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, briefly fainted during intense questioning by Messrs. Levin and McCain. Gen. Petraeus later blamed his collapse—he slumped forward and appeared to lose consciousness—on dehydration, and resumed his regular schedule in the afternoon. Earlier, Gen. Petraeus appeared to struggle with whether withdrawals should begin in July 2011. Pressed by Mr. Levin whether it was his "best personal, professional judgment" that reductions should begin then, Gen. Petraeus paused for eight seconds before appearing to hedge, saying "we have to be careful with timelines." "We are assuming that we will have those kinds of conditions that will enable [withdrawals] by that time, in July 2011," he said. "That's the projection, and that is what we have supported." Mr. Levin followed up, asking whether the general's comments were a "nonanswer" or intended to be qualified. "A qualified yes, Mr. Chairman," Gen. Petraeus replied. "There was a nuance to what the president said that was very important, that did not imply a race for the exits, a search for the light to turn off or anything like that." The uneven progress on the ground has also forced a debate within the administration over the December review itself. Originally, the review, announced by Mr. Obama when he unveiled his war strategy late last year, was expected to focus on the Marjah and Kandahar campaigns as test cases for whether the current strategy could succeed. But U.S. and Western officials said the review won't be as significant as last year's three-month White House overhaul of war policy, and is likely to focus on older, more successful operations—like those in towns near Marjah such as Nawa and Garmser—that were secured in the summer of 2009. The Western diplomat who has discussed the issue with the administration said that framing the December review as a verdict on Marjah and Kandahar had been a mistake and that the administration needed to spend the rest of the year better managing expectations. Sen. John McCain said there were multiple negative trends inside Afghanistan, making him concerned there may be a "mounting crisis" in the campaign. "Had you gone at the start of the year expecting, yes, Marjah will now be this bustling, thriving safe place and Kandahar will be a city transformed, it was unrealistic to think that was going to happen by December of this year," said the diplomat. In areas near Marjah secured earlier last year violence is down sharply and coalition forces are well into the "build" phase of their operations. "If you were to look at what they have done—the areas they have cleared and gone into, it's quite impressive," said a senior U.S. military official.

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