Lawmakers hear different take on year-end review of Afghanistan war effort

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Senior defense and military officials Wednesday played down the importance of an end-of-year review that President Obama has described as crucial to assessing whether his Afghanistan war strategy is working, saying that it would have little bearing on decisions about troop withdrawals scheduled to begin in July 2011.

"I would not want to overplay the significance of this review," Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, told lawmakers. The military, he said, "would not make too much out of that."

Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy said the December assessment would be "a bit deeper" than the regular monthly reviews Obama now receives, but essentially the same. The remarks appeared at odds with senior administration officials' past descriptions of the review as a "proof of concept" moment and a potential turning point in the war effort.

The review has long been scheduled to take place exactly one year after Obama's announcement, in a Dec. 1 speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, that he was sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. In response to a run of bad news about the war, senior administration officials have repeatedly referred to the assessment to wave off judgments on the strategy -- along with reports that some of them already have doubts about it -- by saying they are only halfway through the trial year.

"You are in the middle of the surge," one official said, "and you can look at a set of data points that say the glass is half full and another that say the glass is half empty. That's what happens when you are halfway through a process."

Officials strongly denied media reports that Vice President Biden, said to have initially opposed the surge in troops in favor of a more limited counterterrorism strategy, now thinks that December is too long to put off revisiting the decision. A Biden aide, who spoke on the condition that he not be quoted directly, said the vice president has strongly supported the policy from the moment it was announced.

U.S. war casualties have steadily increased in recent months, even as the new troops have begun to arrive. A Marine offensive launched against entrenched Taliban forces in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan, has progressed more slowly than anticipated, and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said last week that military elements of a major operation that was to begin this month in Kandahar would be delayed until at least September. Also last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai fired his interior minister and intelligence chief, two of his senior officials closest to the United States.

The growing unease about the war has led to a close parsing of official statements on the subject and has revived disagreement, in both Congress and the military, about the establishment of a date to begin a drawdown.

When Obama said in December that "after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," many Democrats applauded it as a way of pressuring the Afghan government to improve its performance and of reassuring Americans about the length of the commitment. Many Republicans, and many in the military, said that by setting a time frame, the administration might encourage the Taliban to simply sit tight until the Americans leave.

At the time, the administration made clear that it would revisit the overall strategy in December 2010. "If it appears that the strategy's not working and that we are not going to be able to transition in 2011, then we will take a hard look at the strategy itself. . . . We will evaluate, in December 2010, whether we believe we will be able to meet that objective," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Dec. 2, the day after Obama's speech.

On Tuesday, before a Senate hearing that was suspended when he briefly fell ill, Petraeus appeared to hesitate in responding to questions about whether he supported Obama's July 2011 pledge.

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