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Afghan Timetable, Troop Levels Spark Skepticism

December 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Two top U.S. officials in Afghanistan told lawmakers Tuesday they support President Obama's revamped war plan, despite skepticism from some lawmakers. Republican Mike Pence of Indiana and Democrat James McGovern of Massachusetts describe their views to Jim Lehrer.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hours before the hearings began in Washington, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates got the red carpet treatment in Kabul. He was the first U.S. Cabinet member to visit since President Obama announced his new war strategy.

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai quickly warned, it might be five years before Afghanistan can handle its own security, and, even then, only with outside funding.

HAMID KARZAI, president, Afghanistan: For a number of years, maybe for another 15 to 20 years, Afghanistan will not be able to sustain a force of that nature and capability with its own resources.

KWAME HOLMAN: Gates did not dispute Karzai, but he expressed a desire to see the U.S. timetable play out at least as well as planned.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. Secretary of Defense: The reality is, as the president has made clear, it is our expectation that, on a gradual conditions-based premise, that we will begin reducing our forces after July of 2011.

KWAME HOLMAN: The U.S. role in Afghanistan continued to be debated in Washington as well. Here at the Capitol, the top American commander and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said they now are united in supporting the new plan, despite earlier reports saying they disagreed on the need for more troops.

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry had expressed misgivings about a surge in a series of leaked cables to Washington. But he told the House Armed Services Committee he now endorses the approach advocated by General Stanley McChrystal.

KARL EIKENBERRY, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan: I am unequivocally in support of this mission, and I am exactly aligned with General McChrystal, here to my right, in moving forward now to vigorously implement the assigned mission.

KWAME HOLMAN: The general said he, too, was confident in the president’s new war plan, including the provision to start withdrawing in 18 months. He also suggested it could take longer.

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. Commander in Afghanistan: Results may come more quickly, and we may demonstrate progress towards measurable objectives, but the sober fact is that there are no silver bullets. Ultimate success will be the cumulative effect of sustained pressure across multiple lines of operation.

KWAME HOLMAN: In response, Republicans renewed their skepticism. Buck McKeon of California asked if the July 2011 timetable would tie McChrystal’s hands.

REP. HOWARD “BUCK” MCKEON, R-Calif.: Do you feel that you will have the flexibility a year from now, December of 2010, to ask for additional forces if your assessment at that point points to those additional forces needed for success?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: I believe I will have the responsibility to give my best military advice, whichever the direction the situation is going. I do not anticipate the requirement to ask for additional forces.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the other hand, some Democrats questioned whether the troop increase actually would improve the situation in Afghanistan.

Chellie Pingree represents Maine.

REP. CHELLIE PINGREE, D-Maine: So, in my opinion, we have reached a security plateau where, no matter how many troops we commit, how many dollars we spend, how many aid workers we send, or elections that we have or re-have in Afghanistan, we cannot significantly improve the security situation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Later, the two men crossed the Capitol to testify before the Senate’s Armed Services Committee.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported, the Obama administration has put intense pressure on Pakistan to fight the Taliban on its side of the border. The report said the Pakistanis were warned last month that, unless they do more, the U.S. is ready to step up attacks by drone aircraft and resume special operations raids in Pakistani territory.

JIM LEHRER: There is skepticism, as well as support, from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress on the Afghan plan.

And we hear from two skeptics now, following our NewsHour interviews the last several days with administration officials advancing the president’s program.

Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and holds the third spot in the House GOP leadership. Rep. James McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, has been a critic of the McChrystal, now the president’s, plan from the very beginning.

Congressman McGovern, do you remain opposed to sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan?

REP. JAMES MCGOVERN, D-Mass.: I do. I think it’s a mistake. I’m not quite sure what the mission is.

Our enemy is al-Qaida. They’re in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. We’re told that maybe there’s 100 members of al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Do we really need 100,000 American troops to go after less than 100 members of al-Qaida?

I think we’re getting sucked into a war that has no end. You mentioned earlier on your show Secretary Gates meeting with President Karzai, and President Karzai saying he expects us to be there for at least five years. And then he says he expects us to bankroll his security forces for the next 15 to 20 years. This is a huge commitment that I don’t believe is in our national security interest.

JIM LEHRER: So, when General McChrystal said today to the House committee that he thought, within a year, he would know whether or not — at least we would know whether or not the Taliban has been — the Taliban’s progress has been thwarted, you don’t buy that?

REP. JAMES MCGOVERN: I don’t think anybody believes that, in a year or a year-and-a-half, that we’re going to significantly draw back our troops. And the administration has spent the last year kind of bending over backwards telling people that there really isn’t a timetable.

It is hard for me to see how you’re going to train the number of Afghan security forces, given the fact that 90 percent of them are illiterate — they can’t read or write or can’t add and subtract — to train them in a significant way in the next year and year-and-a-half.

So, I don’t believe we’re going to leave in a year-and-a-half.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Congressman Pence, you have been questioning the very idea of an 18-month withdrawal, not withdrawal deadline, but a target date to begin the withdrawal. You still feel the same way?

REP. MIKE PENCE, R-Ind.: Well, let me say, Jim, first, what I do agree with the president on — and we — I think House Republicans, like most Americans, appreciate the president making a decision to respond to the call for reinforcements in the field.

After three months of deliberations, the president has essentially given General McChrystal, his own handpicked general for the theater in Afghanistan, the resources and the manpower that he says he needs to get the job done and come home safe.

So, we welcome that, and we support the president’s policy. I also think it was important last week, Jim, that the president took some time a week ago at West Point to remind the American people what the stakes are here.

The president reminded us that we were attacked from the al-Qaida and their host, the Taliban, from within Afghanistan, and that, really, the security of that region and the security of the world depends on our success there.

What — my only hesitation — and I think it’s the hesitation of many of my colleagues in Congress — is — again, is the suggestion of an artificial timeline for withdrawal. You know, I understand that Jim McGovern is a very honorable guy and a respected colleague. We respectfully disagreed on the last surge in Iraq.

And I — you know, I think we respectfully disagree on this surge. Our concern is now that the president has put this arbitrary timetable to begin the process of withdrawal in July of 2011, that we’re going to see many Democrats who oppose the use of military force there, as they did in Iraq, to try and impose legislatively artificial timetables on withdrawal, and — and we will be opposing that very strongly.

JIM LEHRER: What about Congressman McGovern’s point, though, that he just made that this is a — he thinks this is a meaningless target date?

REP. MIKE PENCE: Well, I — you know, what has been encouraging, since the hearing — our hearing before the Foreign Affairs Committee last week, some of the testimony we heard today, is that we’re hearing both the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, and now General McChrystal himself suggesting that July 2011 is not a hard date for beginning to withdraw, that there’s flexibility there.

You know, we welcome that. But, you know, I’m somebody that believes it’s never a good idea to tell the enemy when you’re going to quit fighting on a battlefield. And now that our military commanders are clarifying that this is a looser date, you know, if Jim is right on that, then let’s just — let’s leave out these arbitrary timelines. Let’s give our soldiers what they need to get the job done and come home just every bit as soon as we can.

JIM LEHRER: Of course, you wouldn’t support that, would you, Congressman McGovern?

REP. JAMES MCGOVERN: No, look it, I believe we should have an exit strategy and a timetable.

JIM LEHRER: A real timetable.

REP. JAMES MCGOVERN: A real timetable.

Look it, you know, right now, we’re stuck in a situation where we have armed and financed a government in Afghanistan that is corrupt and incompetent. After eight years of us bankrolling them and training their — the security forces, the best we got from them was a rigged election and a government that is filled with corruption. That, to me, is unacceptable.

And our real enemy is in Pakistan. That’s where al-Qaida is. Al-Qaida is not a problem in Afghanistan. And we are now involved — we are now involved in this issue. We’re trying to do some nation-building in Afghanistan. Quite frankly, we need to do a little bit more nation-building back here in the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman McGovern, let me ask you this. Your opposition to this, is it strong enough that you would lead an effort to unfund this 30,000-troop surge?

REP. JAMES MCGOVERN: Well, here’s what I believe we should do. And I hope there will be bipartisan agreement on this.

This escalation of 30,000 additional American forces, this is a big deal. And I would think that it would be appropriate for the White House to make their request to Congress sooner, rather than later, so that all of us in Congress, both critics and supporters of this escalation, can have a full debate and vote up or down.

As it stands right now, this escalation is beginning. And Congress really has no role. We’re just sitting here watching this. And we will be asked to fund this war kind of in a de facto way come March or April. I don’t think that’s the right way to do this.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Pence, do you buy — would you agree to that kind of debate? Do you think that’s a good thing?

REP. MIKE PENCE: Well, I think it would be a very good thing.

And I — and I think, at the end of the day, you would see Congress — maybe not Jim and a few of his colleagues, but I think you would see a majority in Congress support this effort to respond to General McChrystal’s request for reinforcements.

And I do think, as we were able to do in the last Congress, I think you would see a majority vote to oppose the imposition of any artificial timelines. You know, Jim McGovern knows, and, Jim, you should know I’m somebody that really believes in deliberation in the people’s house. And we would certainly welcome that.

But there can be no mistaking here that an American success in Afghanistan is the imperative. That must be the objective of this nation. And in my judgment, the president has made the right decision in deciding to deploy reinforcements. And we ought to support that without the artificial timelines for withdrawal. But we ought to support it as strongly as we can.

JIM LEHRER: But, just quickly, gentlemen, as a practical matter, hasn’t that — that barn door already opened? I mean, these troops are going — some of these troops, some of these Marines are going before Christmas. Isn’t this a moot issue, Congressman McGovern?

REP. JAMES MCGOVERN: Yes. I mean, the troops are already going. And I don’t think Congress is going to have an opportunity to deliberate the way I think we should when it comes to issues of war.

But, look it, we are making a major financial commitment. We are putting our — our young men and women — women’s lives at risk for an incompetent and corrupt government. And our enemy is in Pakistan. Al-Qaida is our enemy.

Let’s go after the bad guys. Let’s not get mired down in a war in Afghanistan that, quite frankly, you know, I think is mistaken. It is costing us a great deal.

JIM LEHRER: But, in a word, Congressman Pence, you disagree with that basic premise of Congressman McGovern, right?

REP. MIKE PENCE: I really do. And, again, I think one of the best things the president did last Tuesday night at West Point was remind the American people what happened on that day in September of 2001. I was here at the Capitol that day. I watched the smoke rise from the Pentagon. We were attacked from Afghanistan. And we must do what is necessary to succeed there.

JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen.

REP. JAMES MCGOVERN: And I was there, too. And I want to go after al-Qaida.

JIM LEHRER: All right. We are going to leave it there. Thank you both, on that note of disagreement.

REP. MIKE PENCE: Thank you, Jim.


JIM LEHRER: Thank you.