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Top Obama Advisers Face Questioning Over War Strategy

December 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Top White House advisers appeared before congressional committees Thursday to answer tough questions about President Obama's Afghanistan strategy. Ray Suarez reports.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama faced new questions today over sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Top advisers went before congressional committees for a second day.

Ray Suarez has our lead story report.

RAY SUAREZ: For a second day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, trooped back to Capitol Hill.

But the focus before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee quickly turned to Afghanistan’s volatile neighbor, Pakistan.

Chairman John Kerry:

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass., foreign relations committee chairman: Today, it is the presence of al-Qaida in Pakistan, its direct ties to and support from the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the perils of an unstable nuclear- armed Pakistan that drive our mission.

What happens in Pakistan, particularly near the Afghan border, will, in my judgment, do more to determine the outcome in Afghanistan than any increase in troops or shift in strategy.

RAY SUAREZ: But the ranking Republican, Richard Lugar of Indiana, questioned whether Kerry’s concern is addressed by the Obama plan.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR, R-Ind.: It is not clear how an expanded military effort in Afghanistan addresses the problem of Taliban and al-Qaida safe havens across the border in Pakistan. If these safe havens persist, any strategy in Afghanistan will be substantially incomplete.

RAY SUAREZ: There were also more questions, especially from Republicans, on the president’s announcement that a U.S. withdrawal would start in July of 2011.

Idaho Senator James Risch.

SEN. JAMES RISCH, R-Idaho: But the enemy is going to take their — their calendar out. They’re going to circle July of 2011 and say, well, you know, just like America, we are going to reevaluate at that point whether we are going to step down until then, and — and gear up at that point.

RAY SUAREZ: But Secretary Gates said, again, the final decision on a drawdown is subject to review.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. Secretary of Defense: July 2011, the time at which the president said the United States will begin to draw down our forces, will be the beginning of a process, an inflection point, if you will, of transition for Afghan forces, as they begin to assume greater responsibility for security.

The pace and character of that drawdown, which districts and provinces are turned over and when, will be determined by conditions on the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: Gates also told Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, he may ask the president for several thousand more support troops.

ROBERT GATES: I have asked him for a modest amount of flexibility on that. And it’s in the range of about 10 percent of the 30 — of the 30,000.

SEN. BEN CARDIN, D-Md.: I understand that. So, we are really looking at potentially 33,000 additional troops?

ROBERT GATES: Potentially.

RAY SUAREZ: Despite misgivings, it appeared most Democrats would go along with the plan. But New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez warned, he’s not among them, yet.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, D-N.J.: I just don’t get the sense, at this point in time, of a comprehensive policy that says that I should vote for billions of dollars more to send our sons and daughters in harm’s way, in a way that we will ultimately succeed in our national security goals.

RAY SUAREZ: This afternoon, Gates and Mullen were joined by Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew to make their case at a House hearing.

In Afghanistan today, President Hamid Karzai suggested he’s willing to make new overtures to the Taliban. He told the Associated Press he will do whatever it takes for peace, including meeting with Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Meanwhile, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, addressed Afghan lawmakers. He said it’s critical to win the support of the Afghan people.

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. Commander in Afghanistan: This will not be without challenges, because, as we create security, we have got to create governance as well. And we have got to create development opportunities.

RAY SUAREZ: And, in Brussels, NATO foreign ministers began gathering to discuss sending more of their own troops. A spokesman said, more than 20 countries have committed upwards of 5,000 additional soldiers.

JIM LEHRER: We will have more on Afghanistan later in the program.