A page one article published Dec. 3 on testimony concerning the war in Afghanistan misidentified a committee. It was the House Foreign Affairs Committee, not the Armed Services Committee, that heard testimony on Wednesday from senior administration officials.
Earlier versions of this story, including in the print edition of Thursday's Washington Post, misstated the timing of two committee hearings. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, not Thursday, and before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, not Wednesday.
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Lawmakers scrutinize new Afghan strategy
In an opening statement and subsequent questioning, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said the president's decision to set a date of July 2011 to begin withdrawing troops is a "reasonable way under the circumstances to produce the sense of urgency in the Afghan government that has been lacking up to now."
But Levin, who has pressed the administration to beef up Afghan security forces before sending more U.S. combat troops, questioned Obama's priorities and his math. In Helmand province, where 10,000 Marines are battling the Taliban, there are only about 2,000 members of the Afghan forces, he said. "The desired ratio, according to Pentagon doctrine, is close to the opposite: three Afghans for one U.S. soldier or Marine."
"If so," he said, "doubling the number of U.S. troops" in southern Afghanistan, as Obama plans, "will only worsen the ratio." The administration has set an initial target of increasing the size of the Afghan army from 90,000 to 134,000 by the end of next year.
The testiest exchanges took place over the question of when, and under what conditions, U.S. troops -- which will total about 100,000 with the new deployments -- will begin to leave.
Levin cited "some confusion" about the president's pledge to begin drawing down U.S. forces in July 2011, asking whether it was "conditions-based or not."
"No, sir," Gates replied without elaboration.
But Gates and the others began to hedge when Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) -- who was among the many Republicans who applauded what they called Obama's troop "surge" -- returned to the withdrawal question. Obama had made "two incompatible statements" on the subject, McCain said. "You either have a winning strategy . . . and then once it's succeeded, then we withdraw . . . or, as the president said, we will have a date beginning withdrawal of July 2011. Which is it? . . . You can't have both."
Gates said the administration has scheduled "a thorough review" of its strategy for next December and will "take a hard look" at its withdrawal plans "if it appears the strategy's not working."
A number of antiwar activists attended the hearings. "Hillary, you know better," Medea Benjamin, a leader of the group Code Pink, shouted at Clinton.
"Admiral, could you stop the war, please?" she hollered at Mullen, who took his seat and told the committee, "I support fully and without hesitation the president's decision."
Gates, who served as defense secretary during the final two years of President George W. Bush's administration, made several comparisons between Bush's policy of gradually turning over security responsibility in Iraq to that country's government, and Obama's plan to prepare Afghan forces to accept such responsibility.
Afghanistan, Gates said, "will look a lot like Iraq, where some districts and provinces will be able to be turned over fairly quickly, with the U.S. in a tactical and then strategic overwatch -- sort of cavalry over the hill, if you will, for a time." Gates did not mention that the deadlines for the turnover in Iraq were repeatedly pushed back before a final U.S. withdrawal date of the end of 2011 was set in a bilateral agreement between Baghdad and Washington at the end of Bush's presidency.
Several lawmakers mentioned the months of deliberation, which resulted in what Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) called a policy with "a little something for everybody."
"There's an old adage that a camel is a horse designed by committee," Flake said at the House hearing. "In many ways, I think this looks to be a policy designed by committee."
"Camels are very sturdy animals," Clinton replied. "They are patient and may be plodding, but they eventually get to where you hope they will arrive."
Staff writers Paul Kane, Craig Whitlock, Scott Wilson, Spencer S. Hsu, Walter Pincus and Rajiv Chandrasekaran contributed to this report.