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Concern on Capitol Hill about Afghanistan war grows

A look inside the partnership between U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers in an area in southern Afghanistan called Marja

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A series of political and military setbacks in Afghanistan has fed anxiety over the war effort in the past few weeks, shaking supporters of President Obama's counterinsurgency strategy and confirming the pessimism of those who had doubts about it from the start.

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The concerns, fed largely by unease over military operations in southern Afghanistan that are progressing slower than anticipated, spurred lawmakers to schedule last-minute hearings this week to assess progress on the battlefield and within the Afghan government.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the Central Command, and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Mich?le A. Flournoy are to appear Tuesday in the Senate and Wednesday in the House to answer questions about the offensives in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and about what many see as the continuing erratic behavior of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

(Photos of marines conducting an operation in Afghanistan)

"I think we are all concerned," said Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee who visited Afghanistan last month.

"The hearing is an attempt to find out what is going on in Kandahar," said a Senate Armed Services Committee aide, adding that Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the panel's chairman, "is particularly focused on whether there has been a change in strategy or timetable for the Kandahar campaign."

The White House said it welcomes the opportunity to explain. "We anticipated that as we increased our resources in this effort, that it would be increasingly difficult as well," said Denis R. McDonough, the chief of staff of the National Security Council. "It's absolutely understandable and absolutely justifiable for Congress to ask additional questions."

Much of the pressure for results stems from the timeline that Obama set, and that the military agreed to, when he announced his Afghanistan strategy and the deployment of about 30,000 additional troops in December. U.S. troop strength will be about 100,000 by the end of August; a report on overall progress in the war is due in December. Troops are scheduled to begin withdrawing in July 2011.

The military has clearly announced each major operation, including a Marine offensive in Helmand province launched in February and a combined civil-military campaign in Kandahar that officials said last spring would be fully underway by this month. Strong Taliban resistance and lagging Afghan government participation have slowed progress in Marja, a district at the center of the Helmand campaign, creating the image that things have not been going as well as anticipated.

That image was compounded last week when Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the military operations in Kandahar would not begin in force until September.

Senior military and defense officials, none of whom was authorized to discuss relations with the White House, said congressional questions and a series of negative stories in the media have increased requests for explanations. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen "is certainly aware that there is angst" in the White House, one military official said.

"There has been a continuous drumbeat of requests asking what does this mean, what does that mean regarding timelines and time horizons," a defense official said. "I don't see this as unusual or abnormal, but there's a lot of interest and concern."

In public statements last week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sought to tamp down expectations that results would be definitive by December.

"We are going to have to show by the end of the year that our strategy is on the right track and making some headway," Gates said. "I don't think anyone has any illusions that we'll be done or that there will be big victories or something like that.

"But I think General McChrystal is pretty confident that by the end of the year, he will able to point to sufficient progress" to justify continuing the effort, he said.

Benjamin J. Rhodes, head of strategic communications for the National Security Council, said that rough patches are inevitable and that "at different times, different aspects of the strategy will be performing better than others." Early this year, he said, Obama was concerned about recruitment and training issues with the Afghan security forces and "he leaned into that, just as he leaned into alignment with the Karzai government" before Karzai visited Washington last month.

But Obama, he said, is getting all the information he needs. The president receives a weekly interagency report and a monthly briefing from the field, including video conferences with McChrystal, U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and their counterparts in neighboring Pakistan. Obama, Rhodes said, is "confident of the approach we have in place and in General McChrystal's implementation of the strategy."

Others are more doubtful. "It's clear the Marja operation did not go as smoothly as expected," said Frederick Jones, spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

Kerry, he added, "is concerned that the Taliban is reestablishing itself there."

The senator, who is planning oversight hearings on the war this summer, also has questions about Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan's former interior minister, and former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh. Jones said both "were well-respected by the Americans and the British" before Karzai fired them last week.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who has traveled to Afghanistan, said he was "decidedly dubious" of the Obama administration's war strategy from the start. "I'm trying to see how a year from now we'll be in any better position than we are today. It's difficult for me to see a way out here."

Obama's war funding requests for this year and next are still awaiting approval, Flake said, and "it's going to be a more difficult sell than it was several months ago."

Even within the military, there are concerns, and "I sense the same division of opinion," said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations. Although still in the minority, "some folks are very worried that the picture in December is going to look like it's not worth the price," said Biddle, a defense expert who was part of a planning group recruited by McChrystal last year to help formulate a new war strategy.

The "darkness before the dawn" is normal in counterinsurgency operations, and the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is "not all that surprising," Biddle said. "But I don't know that it's a huge cause for optimism, either."



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