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US’s long view in Afghanistan troubles Congress

Some question credibility of 2011 withdrawal date

'Defeat means rendering the enemy incapable of achieving its mission,' General McChrystal told the Armed Services panel. "Defeat means rendering the enemy incapable of achieving its mission," General McChrystal told the Armed Services panel.
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / December 9, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Senior administration officials signaled yesterday that the United States will continue to commit a significant number of troops and substantial funding to Afghanistan for many years to come, despite a July 2011 deadline set forth by the president last week to begin a drawdown.

The US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, and General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, told two committees on Capitol Hill that despite the deadline, the United States is a long-term partner.

“The question we always get [from Afghans] is: ‘Are you going to stay this time?’ ’’ McChrystal testified before the House Armed Services Committee. “And our answer to them is always, ‘Yes, we are.’ ’’

Asked how the Afghan government will pay the salaries of the 134,000-strong army that US troops are planning to train by 2011, Eikenberry said: “Clearly the United States is going to need to have a long-term security assistance relationship with Afghanistan. We are going to provide budgetary support, we know, in the years ahead.’’

Both Eikenberry and McChrystal, who have been reported to be feuding, fell in behind President Obama’s new strategy. Under Obama’s plan, the number of US troops will rise from 68,000 to nearly 100,000, and the amount spent on Afghanistan will increase from an estimated $130 billion in fiscal 2010 to $160 billion. Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, filed a bill yesterday that would allow the government to issue “war bonds’’ similar to those that the government sold to raise revenue during World War II.

As members of Congress discussed how to fund the war, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters in Kabul that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan will be a “several-year process’’ that only begins in July 2011. Gates spoke after meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who told the American that it would take five years for his army to handle insurgents without help, and at least 15 years before his government could afford to pay its soldiers.

Back in Washington, both Democrats and Republicans seized on the July date and questioned whether the withdrawal pledge is merely symbolic.

“The more we hear about the timeline, the more doubts I have that it is a meaningful timeline, in terms of transiting the military force out of the country,’’ Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, said after the hearing.

“Will we just be back here in 12 months’’ hearing requests for more troops, Representative Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine, wanted to know.

Howard P. “Buck’’ McKeon of California, the ranking Republican on the armed services committee, asked McChrystal whether he felt he could ask for more troops next year.

McChrystal responded that he would give his best military advice, but added that he does not “anticipate the requirement to ask for additional forces.’’

Yesterday McChrystal, who wore four stars on each shoulder of his heavily decorated olive uniform, sought to present a united front with Eikenberry, who wore a suit and tie. The two took pains to refer to each other as “old friends.’’

But in the months leading up to the president’s announcement, they appeared to be deeply at odds, advocating vastly different strategies for success in Afghanistan. While McChrystal sought some 44,000 additional troops, Eikenberry wrote two cables arguing against sending any more US forces until the Afghan government committed to concrete reforms.

Both men came under heavy questioning about their views, which were leaked to members of the media.

Missouri Democrat Ike Skelton, chairman of the armed services panel, read a bit of one of Eikenberry’s cables aloud and asked him to explain it.

The ambassador told the committee that his views merely centered around timing of sending more troops, and that he fully supports the president’s schedule now.

“At no point during this review process, Mr. Chairman, was I ever opposed to additional troops being sent to Afghanistan,’’ Eikenberry said. “I am unequivocally in support of this mission, and I am exactly aligned with General McChrystal.’’

Lawmakers repeatedly asked McChrystal whether he had been given all he needs to achieve success. The general told them that he had but also took pains to dampen expectations of a flat-out military victory.

“Defeat means rendering the enemy incapable of achieving its mission,’’ he said. “It does not mean wiping out every individual.’’

Asked whether the goal is “to win,’’ McChrystal answered that the goal is “to help the Afghan people win.’’

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com