McCain, Lieberman, Graham criticize Afghan drawdown plan


U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham, left, John McCain, center, and Joe Lieberman attend a news conference July 3 at the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul. (MOHAMMAD ISMAIL/REUTERS)

KABUL — A trio of high-profile U.S. senators on Sunday criticized President Obama’s plan to withdraw 30,000 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer and cast doubt on the prospects for a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking at a news conference in Kabul alongside Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), called the pace of withdrawal an “unnecessary risk” and one that would undermine U.S. troops’ ability to confront the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan during next year’s summer fighting season.

“I believe that the planned drawdown is an unnecessary risk, and that’s why there was no military leader that recommended it,” McCain said. “I hope and pray every night that the drawdown will still allow us to succeed. But I have very little doubt that we are now deprived to a significant degree of the second fighting season which was planned for eastern Afghanistan.”

Lieberman added that their disagreement with Obama’s plan, while “consequential, is not great.” He said he’d hoped the surge troops could begin leaving next October, after the warmer months when the Taliban fight most aggressively, and then all be out as soon as possible after that.

Obama has announced the 30,000 additional troops he ordered to Afghanistan in 2009 will leave by September, 2012. The additional forces were deployed primarily in the volatile southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar but U.S. military officials now plan to shift their attention to Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan.

“What I’m mostly concerned about is that the accelerated withdrawal of surge forces has created a perception that we’re leaving,” Graham said. “Withdrawal is what the enemy hopes to hear. And our goal is to make sure the enemy doesn’t hear withdrawal and the Afghan people do not hear withdrawal.”

The three senators have regularly traveled together to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years—and their views have generally endorsed the U.S. military’s approach on how to fight them. McCain in particular was a strong supporter of President Bush’s unpopular decision to send in more troops to Iraq at a time when violence was soaring there. Graham is also a colonel in the Air Force reserves and has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The senators, who came to visit U.S. troops for Independence Day and plan to meet President Hamid Karzai on Sunday evening, also warned against making any deal with the Taliban that would bring them back in any form into the government. U.S. officials have made halting steps at meeting with those close to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar in recent months but many officials do not expect much to come of these talks soon.

“If anybody has a dream, a fantasy, of, you know, there being a table at which President Karzai sits down with Mullah Omar and the Haqqani brothers and General Allen, I wouldn’t hold your breath until that happens,” Lieberman said. He was referring to the Siraj and Badruddin Haqqani, the leaders of the Taliban-allied insurgent group known as the Haqqani network, and Gen. John Allen, the incoming new top American commander in Afghanistan.

Joshua Partlow is The Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.
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