It was clear early today in a widely attended Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that one of the most controversial components of President Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan will be the July 2011 date he set for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The date announced in the president's speech last night was first and foremost an effort to reassure a skeptical American public, as well as the president's fellow Democrats, that large numbers of U.S. troops won't remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. Yet it riled Republicans who demanded to know whether the U.S. commitment to the country would be "conditional." Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee, was the first to take issue with the timeline for withdrawal, in spots on some of the major networks last night and in the hearings this morning. He called the date "dispiriting" and one that makes it less likely that Afghan partners "will risk their lives to take our side in this fight." It's a date, he added, that America's "enemies can exploit to weaken and intimidate our friends."
McCain emphasized this notion with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "Will we withdraw based on conditions on the ground or an arbitrary date?" McCain asked. "Which is it? It's got to be one or the other."
He was not the last of his fellow Republicans to try to pin down Gates on this point. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, took up McCain's point as he wondered aloud to the assembled all-star panel of witnesses—who included not only Gates but also Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen—precisely "who is the audience" for President Obama's decision to set a precise timetable for withdrawal.
Gates replied that there were "at least" two principal audiences. The first is the Afghan government. "They must accept responsibility in terms of their own governance, in terms of their own security forces," and, he added, take responsibility for this conflict on their own soil. "It's not just going to be fought by a foreigner on their behalf." It is, in other words, an incentive of sorts for the Afghan government to make quick progress.
The other audience, Gates conceded, was the American people, who are wary after eight years of war. Graham replied that "there are other people listening. That's the problem." He then asked whether the July 2011 date was binding. "The question is, have we locked ourselves in to leaving?"
Clinton stepped in to say that the date signaled "very clearly" that America isn't interested in occupying Afghanistan, nor in "running their country" or "building their nation." By July 2011, the Afghans, she added, should be able to begin to defend themselves.
"Begin" is the key word here. Though some U.S. forces will leave, Gates and Mullen made it clear that training of Afghan forces will continue to be vital. Gates added that 60 percent of the country was uncontested and that he expected that by July 2011 there would be uncontested areas where the U.S. military could begin to leave.
Gates said that the administration "will have a thorough review of how we're doing" in December 2010. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, testifying before the committee to which she once belonged as a senator from New York, was also vigorously questioned by McCain. "I appreciate your statement," McCain said, dismissing the niceties often extended to returning committee members. "But I'd like a lot more specifics."