WASHINGTON – The timetable for rapidly expanding and then shrinking U.S. force levels in Afghanistan, a central feature of President Barack Obama’s new war strategy, came under glaring worldwide scrutiny Wednesday as top administration officials ventured out to build support for the plan.
The timeline, which fixes the beginning of troop reductions in July 2011 but does not set an end, was the subject of widespread confusion and frustration as lawmakers, diplomats and others debated whether it meant American forces were headed for a hasty exit or a protracted military engagement.
The first reviews of the plan showed how a policy carefully designed to appeal to differing points of view nonetheless found doubters in virtually all camps.
In Washington, Republicans said it was contradictory to add 30,000 U.S. troops by mid-2010 and begin withdrawing them a year later.
“That gives the wrong impression to our friends; it’s the wrong impression to give our enemies,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But Democrats worried that Obama’s emphasis on a “conditions-based” withdrawal set up the possibility of an enduring involvement.
“I need to be convinced that … we are not making an open-ended commitment and that there is a sensible way to pay for the war,” said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
Obama outlined the timetable for his Afghan troop surge during an address Tuesday night at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and it quickly became one of the most controversial aspects of the blueprint.
Whipsawed by political pressures, Obama has been eager to show war-weary Americans that he intends to end the eight-year mission, while signaling allies and the enemy that he intends to remain long enough to achieve U.S. goals.
Obama and other administration officials have chosen their words carefully in arguing that their approach will help pressure Afghan President Hamid Karzai to build up his security forces and improve the government, winning the support of ordinary Afghans from Taliban-led insurgents.
When pressed by McCain, Gates portrayed the July 2011 date as less definite, noting that the president may change his plans when needed.
“The president has indicated that we will have a thorough review of how we’re doing in December of 2010, and I think we will be in a position then to evaluate whether or not we can begin that transition in July,” Gates said.