Obama faces tough sell on Afghan strategy

Obama faces tough sell on Afghan strategy


Barack Obama

Republicans and Democrats alike grilled Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates for hours, reflecting the clear lack of consensus on how to move forward in the increasingly unpopular conflict.

Democrats on the left wing of the party spoke disapprovingly of Obama's plans to deploy 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, while Republicans objected to the 18-month timeframe that Obama set for beginning a withdrawal.

Obama's strategy of escalating the war while at the same time announcing a plan for ending it exposed the plan to allegations that it was contradictory and would be tough to sell to a war-weary American public.

Criticism of the timeframe was led by John McCain, Obama's centre-right opponent in the 2008 presidential election, even as the Arizona senator and fellow Republicans applauded the decision to send more troops.

McCain pressed Gates to explain the flexibility of the July 2011 timeframe for initiating a pullout while questioning the wisdom of announcing a date, saying it sends the wrong signal to the Taliban about the US commitment to Afghanistan.

He argued that the administration cannot set an "arbitrary" date while claiming decisions to withdraw will be based on "conditions on the ground".

"Those are two incompatible statements. You either have a winning strategy and do as we did in Iraq, and then once it's succeeded then we withdraw," McCain said. "Or we - 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. You can't have both."

Gates replied that the administration will conduct an extensive review of the progress and adjust the strategy as necessary.

"If it appears that the strategy is not working, and we are not going to be able to transition in 2011, then we will take a hard look at the strategy itself," he said.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, entered the exchange: "The July 2011 date is a day we start transferring responsibility and transitioning. It's not a date that we're leaving."

McCain responded: "Then it makes no sense for (Obama) to have announced the date."
As Republicans continued to push the issue, Gates eventually acknowledged that Obama can alter the timeframe, saying: "The president as commander-in-chief always has the option to adjust his decision."

Moderate Democrats have backed Obama's plan, but those further on the left have been among the biggest critics, preferring a withdrawal and arguing that more troops will only deepen the quagmire. Congressional Democrats worry further that with polls showing the public has turned against them and the Afghan war, they could lose their majority in the November 2010 by-elections.

Democrats raised questions about whether an Afghan government plagued by corruption and sagging credibility was worth defending.

"It seems to me that the large influx of US combat troops will put more US Marines on street corners in Afghan villages, with too few Afghan partners alongside them," said Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan.

Clinton rebuffed the criticism, saying a surge accompanied by a timeframe helps keep pressure on the Afghan government and the international coalition to achieve results quickly.

"I don't believe we have locked ourselves into leaving, but what we have done ... is to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan," she said. "We are not interested in running the country."

Some Democrats have suggested they will move to block the $30 billion the administration will need to may for the surge, but Obama will likely have enough Democrats and the backing of most Republicans to ensure the money is budgeted.

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