Obama administration officials testified before Congress on Wednesday, urging lawmakers from both major political parties to support President Barack Obama's Afghanistan strategy and his decision to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to the conflict. The President is facing resistance to his strategy from Republicans and Democrats.
The concerns were expressed as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen testified to two congressional panels.
President Obama faces opposition from the liberal wing of his party, with lawmakers in the House of Representatives progressive caucus sounding their concerns on Capitol Hill.
On the House floor, Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett asserted that the president is setting the stage for an even longer conflict, while Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich argued that the people of Afghanistan want U.S. troops out of their country.
DOGGETT: "Troop escalation by 40 percent, then de-escalation, all within 18 months is totally unrealistic. We have been fighting in Afghanistan on the installment plan -- a few more troops, a few more months, and many more billions. 2011 will not mark the end of this war; it will just mark the beginning of the next installment."
KUCINICH: "We played all sides in Afghanistan and all sides want us out. They don't want our presence, our control, our troops, our [aerial] drones, our way of life. We're fighting the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. What part of 'Get out!' do we not understand?"
President Obama set a July 2011 target for beginning to withdraw U.S. forces, saying he believes the roughly 18 months until then will provide enough time to bolster the Afghan military, police and central government.
Gates, Clinton and Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that failure to defeat al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan would make the United States vulnerable to future attacks.
The need to defeat al-Qaida and enhance Afghanistan's security, Gates said, cannot be separated, and the stakes are high - not only in Afghanistan, but throughout the region. "While al-Qaida is under great pressure now and [is] dependent on the Taliban and other extremist groups for sustainment, the success of the Taliban would vastly strengthen al-Qaida's message to the Muslim world, that violent extremists are on the winning side of history," he said.
While praising the troop increase, Republican lawmakers such as Senator John McCain and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen say the president is mistaken in stating a timeline for withdrawal.
MCCAIN: "A withdrawal date only emboldens al-Qaida and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight."
LEHTINEN: "Before the strategy is implemented, the president has placed a deadline on our commitment and a timeline for the withdrawal of our troops. What message does this telegraph to the enemy?"
Secretary Clinton said she and other officials agree that the situation in Afghanistan is "serious and worsening," although she says events there and in neighboring Pakistan are "not as negative as frequently portrayed in public."
Clinton pointed to what she and Gates called "encouraging responses" from NATO partners. "We anticipate a significant commitment of additional forces by our NATO/ISAF partners as well as additional money because, of course, we want to establish a robust trust fund for both the Afghan national army and police," she said.
Addressing Clinton directly, Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher asserted that the president's strategy will not work. "We have got the same policy that has not worked - with perhaps a few more troops, perhaps some more money - but basically the same strategy that has not worked. And yet we're going to send 30,000 more of our boys and women into Afghanistan to do the fighting that should be done and could be done by the Afghan villagers themselves," he said.
Many lawmakers remain highly skeptical about help the Obama administration says it can expect from Pakistan, which is receiving billions of dollars more in aid from the United States under legislation Congress approved this year.
House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman wanted to know what incentives Pakistan has to act against the Taliban, beyond its recent military offensives along the border in Waziristan and the Swat Valley. "The way it looks, these operations are focused on the Pakistani Taliban, and not against those extremists and Taliban that are using Pakistan as a sanctuary to launch operations in Afghanistan and against our troops," he said.
Democrat Eliot Engel voiced concern to Admiral Mullen about the U.S. becoming mired in a prolonged war.
ENGEL: "My fear, as is the fear of so many others, is that we could easily get bogged down in an endless war."
MULLEN: "These troops, this strategy, the civilian surge that goes with it, the opportunity we have because Pakistan is making progress, we have got a new president in Afghanistan, we have got the right leadership on the ground, we've got the right leadership in the [U.S.] embassy - that now is the time and we can actually turn this thing around."
Money for military operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq, where U.S. forces are in the process of withdrawing, is included in defense appropriations legislation, currently the subject of House-Senate negotiations.
President Obama has committed to paying for war needs through the regular budgetary process, unlike during the Bush administration, which often sent Congress supplemental funding requests.
But House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha says he expects the cost of the U.S. force increase to be $40 billion rather than the $30 billion President Obama mentioned, adding that he expects the Obama administration will also need to ask Congress for additional war funding.