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Clinton, Gates Defend Afghan Strategy

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today on Capitol Hill, a trio of President Obama's top military and diplomatic officials set out to sell the new Afghan strategy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, faced a full day of questions.

As NPR's David Welna reports, skepticism abounds from both sides of the political divide.

DAVID WELNA: Right off the bat, it was clear President Obama's decision to send another 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan was not sitting well with Carl Levin, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Armed Services Committee): An Afghan surge should be our goal, and any U.S. surge should be related to that goal.

WELNA: Levin declared at the first big hearing on the new Afghanistan policy today that the ideal is two Afghan soldiers partnering and training with each U.S. troop. Instead, with the new surge, U.S. forces will outnumber their Afghan counterparts. Defending the decision to send the 30,000 troops was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): It gets the most U.S. force into the fight as quickly as possible, giving General McChrystal everything he needs in 2010 to gain the initiative.

WELNA: That troop build-up won praise from Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman.

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): In making this decision, President Obama has respectfully disagreed with the majority of members of his own political party, according to every public opinion poll I've seen. And therefore, I think it's fair to say that the president has quite literally put our national security interests ahead of partisan political interests.

WELNA: But as Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker noted, the president also announced he'd start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan 19 months from now.

Senator ROGER WICKER (Republican, Mississippi): When in history has a commander ever announced both a surge and a withdrawal at the same time?

WELNA: His question went unanswered. But John McCain, the top Republican on Armed Services, had another question for Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona; Armed Services Committee): I think the American people need to know whether we will begin withdrawing in 2011 or -and conditions are right for that - or whether we will just be withdrawing no matter what.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): Our current plan is that we will begin the transition in local areas in July of 2011. We will evaluate in December 2010 whether we believe we will be able to meet that objective.

WELNA: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham pressed Gates further on the withdrawal target date.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): So it is not locked in that we're going to be withdrawing troops in July 2011. We're going to look throughout the process, particularly in December 2010, and make a decision then as to whether we should withdraw at a certain pace, or not withdraw at all. Is that correct?

Sec. GATES: I guess the way I would phrase it is, that it is our plan to begin this transition process in July of 2011. If circumstances dictate in December, I think, as I said, the president always has the freedom to adjust his decisions.

WELNA: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for her part, told the panel she did not think the U.S. has locked itself into leaving Afghanistan. At the same time, Clinton said the president's new plan can lead to success.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is serious. But it is not, in my view, as negative as frequently portrayed in public. And the beginning of President Karzai's second term has opened a new window of opportunity.

WELNA: The task in Afghanistan, Clinton said, is not impossible.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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