U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates defended President Barack Obama's new Afghanistan strategy at a congressional hearing on Wednesday, saying that failure in Afghanistan would mean a "Taliban takeover" of the country. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen also took questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, with several lawmakers pressing them about the president's pledge to begin troop withdrawals from Afghanistan by July of 2011.
On the day after a major speech by President Obama announcing his plan to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, senior cabinet members and Pentagon officials went to Capitol Hill to take questions from Senate lawmakers.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the stakes for U.S. national security could not be higher.
"Failure in Afghanistan would mean a Taliban takeover of much, if not most, of the country and likely a renewed civil war," said Robert Gates.
Gates said Taliban-ruled areas could quickly become sanctuaries for al-Qaida again and a staging area for attacks into Pakistan. He said this would have severe consequences for the United States and the world, and that President Obama made the right decision to boost U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"The president's decision offers the best possibility to decisively change the momentum in Afghanistan, and fundamentally alter the strategic equation in Pakistan and Central Asia," he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed that President Obama chose the best way forward out of a range of difficult options. She said Afghanistan's vital importance to U.S. security has been clear ever since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
"The case for action against al-Qaida has always been clear, but the United States' course of action has not," said Hillary Clinton.
Clinton said she believes the U.S.-led war in Iraq was a distraction that allowed the Taliban and other extremists to regroup.
"And while our attention was focused elsewhere, the Taliban gained momentum in Afghanistan and the extremist threat grew in Pakistan - a country with 175 million people, a nuclear arsenal and more than its share of challenges," she said.
Most members of the Armed Services Committee supported President Obama's decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But several senators pressed Gates, Clinton and Mullen on comments the president made about beginning to pull out U.S. troops in late 2011.
Republican Senator John McCain was one of them.
"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," said John McCain.
Senator McCain said success is the only exit strategy and that American troops should return home with honor when the war is won, not before.
Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates said that one reason President Obama set a date for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops was to get Afghanis to take more responsibility for stabilizing their country.
Independent Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman gave President Obama credit for making a decision to send more troops that is opposed by many liberal members of his own Democratic Party.
"The president has quite literally put our national security interests ahead of partisan political interests," said Lieberman.
Lieberman urged all lawmakers to do the same on national security matters.
Senior Obama administration officials will continue to answer lawmakers questions at hearings on Capitol Hill this week. Congress must approve funding for the additional troops that President Obama wants to send to Afghanistan.