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Key Senate Democrat questions lack of Afghan forces to aid U.S. troop surge

Sen. Carl Levin says a partnership with local security forces is vital to success behind a U.S. buildup. Defense Secretary Gates says additional troops will deploy in 2 to 3 weeks.

December 02, 2009|By Julian E. Barnes
  • Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had questions about the "rapid deployment of a large number of U.S. combat forces" into Afghanistan.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee,… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

Reporting from Washington — As top administration officials appeared before Congress today to defend the troop buildup in Afghanistan, and with the Pentagon saying the first additional troops will deploy within two to three weeks, a key Senate Democrat questioned a central element of President Obama's new Afghan strategy.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had questions about the "rapid deployment of a large number of U.S. combat forces" into Afghanistan.

"An Afghan surge should be our goal, and any U.S. surge should be related to that goal," said Levin, suggesting that there are not enough Afghan security forces to partner with those combat forces.

"That partnering is vital to success in Afghanistan, for the Afghans and us," Levin said. "But the current shortfall in terms of partnering is not a shortage of American combat troops. It's a shortage of Afghan troops."

Noting a shortage of Afghan troops to partner with the existing number of U.S. combat forces, Levin suggested that new troops should only be added once more local security forces are trained.

But Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the new policy was about partnering and mentoring "just as much, if not more" than about fighting.

"Where we once believed that finishing the job meant, to a large degree, doing it ourselves, we now know it cannot truly or permanently be done by anyone other than the Afghans themselves," Mullen said.

Still, Mullen said, the total force that would be sent to Afghanistan would provide "breathing space" for local security forces to secure their own country.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that the first forces of the 30,000-troop increase which the president has ordered will arrive in Afghanistan within two to three weeks.

The troop buildup is necessary to prevent a Taliban takeover of much of the country and a renewal of Al Qaeda sanctuary in the country, Gates said.

Without stabilizing Afghanistan, the U.S. cannot "defeat Al Qaeda and its toxic ideology," the Defense secretary said. The new deployment, Gates said, "offers the best possibility" to change the trajectory of the war in Afghanistan.

Gates also said the U.S would look for between 5,000 and 7,000 additional troops from NATO.

But Gates noted that the security situation in Afghanistan does not approach the violence that gripped Iraq in 2006.

"With all the resources already committed to this campaign -- plus those the president has just announced -- I believe the pieces are being put in place to make real and measurable progress in Afghanistan over the next 18 to 24 months," Gates said.

Muslim extremists in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan are the epicenter of extremist thinking, Gates said, and militant groups hope to defeat the U.S. as they did the former Soviet Union.

"Some may say this is similar to the 'domino theory' that underpinned and ultimately muddied the thinking behind the U.S. military escalation in Vietnam," Gates said.

The difference, Gates said, is that there is a "very real and very recent history" showing what happens in Afghanistan when insurgents are given safe havens from which to attack the U.S.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the troops being sent into Afghanistan would be sufficient to mount an effective counterinsurgency plan.

"President Obama has made the right decision," McCain said. "I support the president's decision, and it deserves the support of all Americans, both Democrats and Republicans."

The new plan provides enough troops for Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, to mount a serious counterinsurgency, McCain said.

"Our friends can know we will support them, our enemies can know we will defeat them," the senator said.

Still, McCain continued to criticize Obama's decision to set a date, July 2011, to begin bringing troops home.

"Yes, our commitment is not open-ended . . . and yes, this war will one day end," McCain said. But, he added, "success is the real exit strategy."

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