Lawmakers questioned the exit strategy, a day after Obama announced he was sending an additional 30,000 American troops to the Afghan war and would commence troop withdrawals by the summer of 2011.
“Failure in Afghanistan would mean a Taliban takeover of much, if not most, of the country and likely a renewed civil war,” Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Taliban-ruled areas could in short order become, once again, a sanctuary for al-Qaida as well as a staging area for resurgent militant groups on the offensive in Pakistan.”
The insurgency has already gained “dominant influence” in 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm Mike Mullen, who appeared with Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the committee.
Committee chairman Sen Carl Levin expressed serious misgivings about the troop escalation when the Afghan security force remains small and weak.
“It seems to me that the large influx of US combat troops will put more US Marines on street corners in Afghan villages, with too few Afghan partners alongside them,” he said.
The build-up also will put more strain on troops by giving them less time than hoped for at home. Mullen said supplying the extra forces for Afghanistan while there are still so many in Iraq will mean putting off for a couple of years the goal of lengthening the time they rest and retrain at home in between tours of duty — a period the military calls “dwell time”. The Army had been moving toward giving two years of dwell time between each one-year tour.
Despite the war’s waning popularity among voters, there were few protesters on hand as Gates, Mullen and Clinton testified.
Vice-President Joe Biden said earlier the new surge-and-exit troop strategy is aimed more at wringing reforms from President Hamid Karzai than mollifying a war-weary American public.
Democrats criticised Obama’s escalation of the eight-year-old war after his prime-time speech Tuesday night at West Point, NY. Republicans are unhappy with his promise to withdraw troops in 18 months, but Congress appears willing, nevertheless, to approve the $30 billion price tag.
Sen John McCain, who lost to Obama in last year’s presidential election, said he supports the build-up but thinks it’s wrong to signal in advance when a troop withdrawal might start.
“We don’t want to sound an uncertain trumpet to our friends in the region,” the Arizona Republican said.
McCain asked Gates if the US would withdraw troops based on “an arbitrary date”.
Gates replied “I think it’s the judgment of all of us... that we would be in a position, particularly in uncontested areas, where we would be able to begin that transition.”
He said the July 2011 date was chosen because it was two years after the Marines went into Helmand province in a new push last summer.