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Debate grows over Afghanistan withdrawal plan

Petraeus seeks to reassure senators concerned by recent setbacks in the war that conditions will determine when and how many troops are pulled.

June 15, 2010|By Julian E. Barnes, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — Recent setbacks in Afghanistan have intensified debate over the wisdom of the Obama administration's plan to begin withdrawing U.S. military forces next summer and highlighted reservations among military commanders over a rigid timeline.

At a Senate hearing Tuesday, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees U.S. forces in the Mideast and Afghanistan, offered "qualified" support for President Obama's plan to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011.

"In a perfect world, Mr. Chairman, we have to be very careful with timelines," Petraeus said under questioning by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who wanted to know whether he supported the plan.

Petraeus explained that the drawdown would be based on conditions in Afghanistan at the time.

The reservation reflects longstanding uneasiness among military officials over the withdrawal timeline. In December, Obama announced plans for an increase in troop deployment to Afghanistan, which he said would begin to wind down in July 2011.

Many military officials have downplayed the significance of the start of the withdrawal and have said the pace would be based on conditions. The U.S. will not leave Afghanistan precipitously, they say.

But the timetable has put the military in uncomfortable positions, officials have said, forcing them to reassure skeptical Afghan leaders that the U.S. won't draw down quickly.

Petraeus did not elaborate on his own reservations and left the hearing moments later after becoming ill. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was worried that the timeline had undercut Afghan President Hamid Karzai's support for the U.S.-led war effort.

Karzai recently fired two key advisors backed by Washington and, according to Afghans, has privately expressed doubts about the war.

McCain said the announced drawdown made it harder for uncommitted Afghans to back the United States. The deadline makes it appear that the U.S. is more interested in "leaving than succeeding," he said.

"I continue to worry a great deal about the message we are sending in the region," McCain said.

The administration is planning a major assessment of the war in December — another key deadline.

After the 2007 troop buildup in Iraq, the military used its first major assessment to buy time from Congress, showing that violence had begun to abate.

With Afghanistan, however, some military officials worry that the December assessment deadline doesn't give them enough time to show their strategy is working.

Earlier this year, military leaders hoped to have two successes to put before the White House in that review: Kandahar and Marja. But recent developments suggest that results of those offensives may not be clear.

In Marja, the U.S. and its allies have had trouble setting up local governmental bodies since the major offensive launched there in February, and militants have renewed their attacks.

Nonprofit organizations helping with civilian development efforts have been forced to withdraw, acknowledged Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of Defense for policy, who testified alongside Petraeus on Tuesday.

In Kandahar, meanwhile, the beginning of a major campaign is underway, including raids by special operations forces that Defense officials say have weakened the Taliban.

Faced with local Afghan leaders' skepticism over the offensive, military officials have delayed portions of it until later in the year.

The December review is widely expected to touch off a debate between those favoring a sizable troop presence to train local security forces and stabilize Afghanistan and those pushing for a faster drawdown.

Times staff writers David S. Cloud and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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