Daily brief: lawmakers hammer Obama advisers on Afghan timetable
About that timeline U.S. President Barack Obama’s announced timetable for the July 2011 beginning of the transition of authority from international to Afghan security forces has rattled Afghans and Pakistanis; neither country’s president commented publicly on the speech, and citizens and government officials alike expressed a plethora of concerns (New York Times, Washington Post, McClatchy, ...
About that timeline
U.S. President Barack Obama’s announced timetable for the July 2011 beginning of the transition of authority from international to Afghan security forces has rattled Afghans and Pakistanis; neither country’s president commented publicly on the speech, and citizens and government officials alike expressed a plethora of concerns (New York Times, Washington Post, McClatchy, Washington Post). Some Afghans are worried that the Afghan security forces will not be ready to take over, while some Pakistani analysts believe the increase in troops will push fighters over the border into Pakistani territory and the U.S. plans to abandon the region again.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Afghan insurgent group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar called the new strategy “not clear,” adding to the Taliban’s disapproval of the plan (Pajhwok). The United Nations and NATO both expressed their support for the new strategy (CNN). It’s certain that the strategy faces a host of challenges, including on the logistical front, though Obama’s speech apparently persuaded at least a few skeptics (AP, CNN, New York Times).
In addition to the 30,000 new troops Obama has ordered deployed to Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is authorized to send an extra 3,000 soldiers, or 10 percent of the total, to the Afghan theater, and the final number could go as high as 35,000 including support personnel (Washington Post). And though the increase looks like a defeat for Vice President Joe Biden, who reportedly advocated a more limited mission, the focus on disrupting the Taliban’s momentum and quickly transferring security responsibilities to Afghans — rather than on extending the reach of the government across rural areas and encouraging representative democracy — shows his influence on the debate (Washington Post).
To the Hill
Top members of Obama’s foreign policy team took to the Hill yesterday in a grueling day of testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen were hammered by skeptical lawmakers on both sides of the aisle (Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, AFP). They made clear that July 2011 was in large part designed to be a wake-up call to Afghans that the United States will not be there forever, and told Congress that the date for the U.S. to start withdrawing troops is flexible (New York Times, AFP, Los Angeles Times).
Democrats fretted that the flexibility of the date means that the U.S. will have a large force in Afghanistan indefinitely, while Republicans worried that announcing July 2011 as a target date to begin the transition will simply encourage Taliban militants to wait out the international forces (Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Times of London, Guardian). The U.S. plans to evaluate security conditions on the ground in December 2010 and assess whether the July 2011 date can be met, though Gates commented, “If circumstances dictate in December  the president always has the freedom to adjust his decisions.”
But despite misgivings over the timeline and the price tag, Congress seems poised to back the plan (AP, AP). Rep. John Murtha, House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee chairman, told reporters earlier today that he expects the Obama administration to submit a $40 billion supplemental funding request to support the troop increase and said he believes the bill will pass (Wall Street Journal).
Gates, Clinton, and Mullen are headed back to Capitol Hill today, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee at 9:00am EST (SFRC) and the House Armed Services Committee at 1:00pm EST (HASC). In the House hearing, State Department official Jacob J. Lew will sub in for Clinton.
The increase in troops has drawn inevitable comparisons to the Iraq surge of 2007, though there are critical differences between the two countries: politics around the decision, the nature of the insurgency, the terrain, and the quality of the native security forces (Los Angeles Times). Top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal is hard at work selling the strategy to Afghans, emphasizing that the United States will stay in Afghanistan as long as necessary, while an American military official says the bulk of the 30,000 new troops will be deployed to Afghanistan’s restive south, the spiritual and financial homeland of the Taliban movement (AP, AFP, Reuters, New York Times).
As a meeting of NATO defense ministers convenes today and tomorrow in Brussels, Italy is reportedly considering sending an additional 1,000 soldiers to the Afghan theater, as part of NATO’s promised 5,000 extra troops — though the details of that 5,000 are murky, as some were already in place or slated to arrive in 2010 (New York Times, AFP, Washington Post, Financial Times, BBC). Afghanistan is expected to be high on the meeting’s agenda. NATO officials expected 20 nations to commit new troops, though details are not yet available (AP).
Facing calls that Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan, the country’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, said he didn’t think the terrorist leader was there, though he didn’t speculate on alternative locations (New York Times, CNN). The prime minister added that he seeks “more clarity” on the Afghanistan troop increase (Dawn).
Pakistani military forces killed 15 extremists in separate clashes yesterday in the Swat Valley and Bajaur, two recent sites of military offensives (AP, Dawn). And four people have been injured in a remote controlled bomb blast, the third in Pakistan in as many days, at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Peshawar, the capital of the Northwest Frontier Province that has frequently been a target for Taliban militants (Geo TV, AFP, AP).
The Lt. Dan Band
Actor Gary Sinise, perhaps best know for his role as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump, played guitar with his Lt. Dan Band at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province in late November for a crowd of 400 soldiers, to the delight of the crowd (McClatchy). Tom Hanks was not there.
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