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Division on Capitol Hill Over Obama War Strategy

December 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Gwen Ifill gets reactions to President Obama's Afghanistan strategy from lawmakers on Capitol Hill who remain divided over the president's announcement.
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JIM LEHRER: President Obama’s new war strategy in Afghanistan drew strong reactions at home and abroad today.

Gwen Ifill has our lead story report.

GWEN IFILL: The White House rolled out its defense of the president’s new war policy first thing this morning on Capitol Hill.

But the secretaries of state and defense quickly encountered skepticism about the decision to send in 30,000 more U.S. troops. Some of it came from members of the president’s own party.

Michigan Senator Carl Levin, a leading Democrat:

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich., armed services committee chairman: General James Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said in September, “If I could change only one thing in the south of Afghanistan, it would be to have more Afghan troops.”

Well, it seems to me that the large influx of U.S. combat troops will put more U.S. Marines on street corners in Afghan villages, with too few Afghan partners alongside them.

GWEN IFILL: Echoing the reasoning the president laid out in last night’s prime-time address, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Afghan mission is critical to American and global security.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: The extremists we are fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan have attacked us and our allies before. If we allow them access to the very same safe havens they used before 2001, they will have a greater capacity to regroup and attack again. They could drag an entire region into chaos.

GWEN IFILL: Republicans in general supported the new deployment, but questioned the president’s plan to begin pulling troops out in the summer of 2011. Senator John McCain said that amounts to sounding an uncertain trumpet.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: You either have a winning strategy and do as we did in Iraq, and then, once it’s succeeded, then we withdraw, or we — as — as the president said, we will have a date beginning withdrawal of July 2011.

Which is it? It’s got to be one or the other. It’s got to be the appropriate conditions, or it’s got to be an arbitrary date. I — you can’t have both.

Withdrawal date 'realistic target'

GWEN IFILL: Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the administration will decide at the end of 2010 if 2011 is a realistic target date.

ROBERT GATES: Quite frankly, I detest the phrase exit strategy, because what we are looking at over time is a transition in our relationship with the Afghans.

GWEN IFILL: Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed. Much, he said, depends on whether Afghans will be ready to take responsibility for their own security.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: I believe and the military leadership believes that, by mid-2011, we will know how this is going. Obviously, the July 2011 date is a day we start transitioning -- transferring responsibility and transitioning. It's not a date that we're leaving. And the president also said that is -- will be based on conditions on the ground.

GWEN IFILL: Later, Mullen, Gates and Clinton faced similar questions from members of the House. Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona challenged Clinton at a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

REP. JEFF FLAKE, R-Ariz.: There's an old adage that a camel is a horse designed by committee. And, in many ways, I think this looks to be a policy designed by committee, a little something for everybody. For those who want to get out, there's the timetable. For those who want to get in, we have the surge. But it may not work very well.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Congressman, camels are very sturdy animals. They are patient and may be plodding, but they eventually get to where you hope they will arrive.

NATO troops are expected

GWEN IFILL: Gates and Mullen said the U.S. is counting on an additional 5,000 to 7,000 troops from NATO nations. Clinton travels to Europe tomorrow to nail those commitments down.

In Brussels today, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen suggested, member states will sign on.

In Afghanistan, the top U.S. commander, General Stanley McChrystal, said he's absolutely supportive of the Obama plan, including its timeline.

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I believe that, by next summer, the uplift of new forces will make a difference on the ground significantly. I believe that, by this time next year, we will see a level of progress that will convince us that we can clearly articulate the progress and predict the effect -- the effectiveness of our operations.

GWEN IFILL: Lawmakers and others made clear today they continue to harbor concerns about Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who secured a second term only after an election marred by fraud.

This morning, on ABC, Vice President Joe Biden reinforced that message.

JOSEPH BIDEN: We expect the Afghanis to in fact have better governance and train up better.

GWEN IFILL: In a statement today, Karzai said, his government will spare no effort to implement the new strategy.

But Pakistan's prime minister worried, the U.S. surge in Southern Afghanistan will chase Taliban militants across the border into Pakistani territory.

YOUSAF RAZA GILANI, prime minister, Pakistan: The only concern is when they will be sending more troops to Afghanistan, that will be the area of Helmand. And Helmand would be directly -- if there are any influx of the militants that would be moving towards Balochistan.

GWEN IFILL: At the U.N., Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed the Obama plan. He said it would balance military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan.