Live: Senate Armed Services hearing
Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee examines the careful balancing act President Obama attempted Tuesday night in announcing his troop increase in Afghanistan -- a boost of 30,000, faster than expected, but a withdrawal target starting in summer 2011. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen attempt to keep up the juggling, even as lawmakers such as Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking minority member Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) try to pin them down.
12:53 p.m. -- Gates: "We must not repeat the mistake of 1989." The gavel comes down on the hearing. Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana finishes up with a long series of positive statements that are most notable for congratulating Secretary Clinton on the wedding engagement of her daughter. But his open-ended manner does allow Secretary Gates to end on a high note that neatly summarizes the administration's reason for announcing the 2011 state.
"I detest the phrase 'exit strategy,'" Gates declares. He says that what the United States is looking for is a "transition in our relationship with Afghanistan" from something that is primarily military to one in which civilian and development assistance is predominant.
"We will not repeat, we must not repeat the mistake of 1989" and abandon the country again, he says. He says it with such conviction that you can imagine he made this point quite clearly during the internal deliberations -- and his fervor is credible because he was responsible for the mistake in the first place.
12:27 p.m. -- 2011 exit start date "a goal." Mississippi Sen. Wicker (R) wraps up his questioning by declaring to Secretary Gates that he predicts "the left to rise up and protest vehemently the statements you have made" to Graham suggesting more flexibility on the July 2011 date for beginning a troop drawdown. The witnesses respond with uncomfortable silence.
It falls to a relatively junior member, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), to come to the rescue. He gets everyone to agree that the 2011 date is simply "a goal that we are shooting for....it is not hard but it is a target. It might be a few people, might be thousands."
The lawmakers seem to have succeed in beating this horse so thoroughly it is no longer recognizable.
12:14 p.m. -- Worthwhile Canadian initiative? Sen. Kay Hagen, Democrat of North Carolina, puts Gates a bit on the hot seat by reading off a list of the NATO countries contemplating leaving Afghanistan and wondering why the administration thinks that NATO and other allies can cough up another 5,000 troops.
Gates says he only knows of two firm departures in the coming year -- the Dutch and Canadians -- and argues that the administration's "hope" is that "the president's speech and resolve will help change the political dynamic among our allies." In other words, none of these new troops are yet in the bank, though Gates later tells Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) that he has already gotten assurances of new 1,800-2,000 troops from allies.
Gates, in fact, notes that while the individual governments are "very strongly supportive," they are often in coalition governments and do not have much flexibility. "The will is the there; the political capacity has been a challenge," he says.
He could have been describing the mood in Washington, too.
11:24 a.m. -- A quick partisan jab by Clinton. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of the sharpest questioners on the committee, has a few interesting exchanges with the witnesses. He asks if they realize that this is the last, best chance to save Afghanistan, and they dutifully nod yes.
Clinton then interjects that it "is sad we had to do it eight years later." Graham seems briefly taken aback by her partisan jab, and mutters that it would have been sad to have lost in Iraq as well.
Graham then bores in hard on the July, 2011 date. He asks if the president has locked himself into that date, and Gates and Mullen try hard to say that as commander in chief, Obama obviously retains all options to change his mind. But, Gates argues, the date Obama offered Tuesday night as the starting point for withdrawing troops is a "clear statement of strong intent."
Clinton quotes from the president's full speech Tuesday night--which was much more nuanced than the lawmakers are suggesting it is--and says that the president wanted to signal that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan or running the country.
She calls the July 2011 the date was "the best assessment of our military experts" that there can be a "responsible transition" started in the summer of 2011.
Gates explains that there are two audiences for that date -- Afghanistan and the American people weary of war. But Graham does not seem entirely convinced. "The enemy has a vote," he notes.
11 a.m. -- Dithering about the date: Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) elicts even more clarification on the July 2011 withdrawal date, which seems to get more flexible as the witnesses keep testifying.
Gates offers what he calls his "personal opinion," stressing that what he is about to say was not a part of the conversations at the presidential level the past three months. He says he envisions some kind of "continuing presence" of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan for many, many years--not involved in combat, but training and that sort of thing. There would be a "continuing partnership" with Afghanistan--if the country wants it, he said.
10:44 a.m. -- Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) gives a shout-out to former Rep. Charlie Wilson, the loveable rogue whose long-ago fixation with Afghanistan was depicted in the very entertaining movie, "Charlie Wilson's War."
Nelson seizes on Gates's statement that the United States bungled things up when it quit caring about Afghanistan in 1989 after the Soviet Union left in defeat. He argues that policy-makers should have listened to Wilson back then. (Viewers of the movie may recall it ends on a melancholy note as Wilson fails to secure funding to promote Afghani democracy.)
Gates, who played a key role in the U.S. assistance to the anti-Soviet forces at the time, wryly notes that dealing with Wilson was "always an interesting experience."
10:18 a.m. -- Lieberman weighs in. Gates offers a further refinement of the withdrawal date in response to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who seems to be trying to chart a middle course between Levin and McCain. The defense secretary says he expects a "thinning of forces" to start in July, 2011 as "we turn over more districts and provinces" to the Afghani government, but "we are not going to throw these guys into the swimming pool and walk away."
Noting that this is the second surge he has had to defend before Congress, Gates points out that the surge in Iraq only lasted 14 months. As the perception spread that it had been a success, he reminds the senators, the Iraqis could not wait for the Americans to leave.
The big issue now, Gates says, is whether the administration can make the same dynamic work in Afghanistan.
10:07 a.m. -- McCain jumps on Gates's withdrawal date answer to Levin, and declares it is contradictory and gives the wrong impression to the country and allies.
After several back-and-forth exchanges, Gates concedes that there will be a "thorough review" in December 2010 and that if the strategy is not working, "we will take a long look" at the July 2011 date. This seems an important concession, and McCain declares that is this is the case.
"It makes no sense for him [President Obama] to have a date" in the first place, he says.
9:57 a.m. -- Questions finally begin. Levin gets to the nub of the issue: is the July 2011 date for bringing down troops based on conditions on the ground or is it a hard date, no matter what?
Gates answers that that is the date when the transfer will begin. Levin presses for a 'yes' or 'no' answer--is it conditions-based or not? "No sir," Gates says. So there you have it. Troops will start to go home then.
9:48 a.m. -- Mullen defends the drawn-out deliberation process. In his prepared testimony, Mullen offers a nifty counterpoint to those Republicans who accused Obama of dithering during the long review of the new strategy. "I have seen my share of internal debates about various national security issues--especially over the course of these last two years," the joint chiefs chairman says. "And I can honestly say that I do not recall an issue so thoroughly or so thoughtfully considered as this one. Every military leader in the chain of command, as well as those of the joint chiefs was given voice throughout this process. And every one of us used it."
He didn't need to say that.
9:43 a.m. -- Clinton addresses her former colleagues. In her prepared statement, Clinton once again demonstrates her experience. This is her old committee, and she speaks clearly and sometime bluntly, noting that statements by Afghan president Karzai about corruption were "long in coming." And she sprinkles in phrases in her prepared testimony--such as a reference to how seriously the committees takes its oversight responsibilities--that shows she knows how the stroke the big egos listening to her.
9:33 a.m. -- Gates: "build, hold, clear and transfer." In his prepared testimony, Gates offers a twist on an old catchphrase--saying the administration's new strategy is "build, hold, clear and transfer." Transfer--meaning shift security responsibility to the Afghanis-- is an addition to the old phrase, clearly aimed at Democratic skeptics. Gates also seems to extend the surge a bit, saying it will last "18 to 24 months"--which is certainly longer than July 2011.
In one interesting historical note, Gates declares "will will not repeat the mistakes of 1989," when the United States abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet Union left in defeat. Who was one of the architects of that failed policy? Gates himself, who at the time was deputy national security advisor for then-President George H.W. Bush.
9:17 a.m. -- McCain supports surge, blasts "arbitrary" withdrawal date. The ranking Republican on the committee says he will "be an ally in this effort" but, as expected, is very critical of the proposed exit strategy. This war "should end when we have achieved our goals," he declares, and signals he will press the witnesses hard on this point. But McCain also throws out an unexpected curveball--the rumors that the ambassador in Afghanistan (ex three-star commander Karl Eikenberry) is not getting along with the current commander, Gen. Stanley McCrystal. The senator -- who also mentioned unspecified problems at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul earlier on the "Today" show--says he is "concerned" about such reports. Interesting that he choose to raise this point in his opening remarks.
9:14 am -- Committee chairman Levin (D-Mich.) lays down his marker: The number of U.S. troops is not too small, he says in his opening remarks. The problem is that there are too few Afghan troops. Doubling the US troops in the south will "only worsen the ratio" between US and Afghan troops, he argues.
This is not a good start to the hearing for the president. Levin prefaced his remarks with some kind words for the ideas behind the strategy, but the bottom line is clear: He's not happy.
8:59 a.m. -- What to expect at the hearing: The troop surge was intended to placate Republican supporters of the war and the withdrawal date was aimed at Democrats anxious about an endless commitment. Now, the senators will get to weigh in.
Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have already signaled they will try to elicit language at this hearing that makes the withdrawal date all but meaningless. McCain told CBS that he is worried "the message we send to our friends and our enemies in the region when we say that there is a date certain in the middle of 2011 where we're going to leave, but also that it's condition-based. Those are contradictory. You can't have it both ways. And I hope that we'll clear that up this morning."
Democrats, meanwhile, likely will gamely try to defend the president's dual-track logic while at the same time signaling that they won't support any open-ended troop commitment. Pay close attention to what Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee chairman, says, because he has clearly not been happy with the concept of a troop surge.
Nevertheless, the reception on the Hill is likely to be better than the congressional reaction to the troop surge in Iraq announced by President Bush in early 2007. Few people remember now--since the surge is considered a success--but it was condemned virtually across the board by Republicans and Democrats (with the notable exception of McCain.) Then-Senators Obama and Clinton were especially critical, but so were many Republicans.
In fact, when then-Secretary Condoleezza Rice appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not a single member--Republican or Democrat--supported the plan. A typical comment, from Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio): "I've gone along with the president on this, and I bought into his dream. And at this stage of the game, I don't think it's going to happen."
At the time, Bush had extraordinarily low approval numbers. Though Obama's approval rating has been dipping, it is still high enough to give him some clout on Capitol Hill.
Washington Post Editor
December 2, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency , Barack Obama , Capitol Briefing , Hillary Rodham Clinton , John McCain , National Security
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