WASHINGTON -- Failure in Afghanistan would mean a Taliban takeover of the country and "have severe consequences for the United States and the world," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday as the Obama administration set out to sell its new strategy on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers questioned the exit strategy, a day after Obama announced he was sending an additional 30,000 American troops to the Afghan war and would commence troop withdrawals by the summer of 2011.
"Failure in Afghanistan would mean a Taliban takeover of much, if not most, of the country and likely a renewed civil war," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Taliban-ruled areas could in short order become, once again, a sanctuary for al-Qaida as well as a staging area for resurgent militant groups on the offensive in Pakistan."
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The insurgency already has gained "dominant influence" in 11 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who appeared with Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the committee.
Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin expressed serious misgivings about the troop escalation when the Afghan security force remains small and weak.
"It seems to me that the large influx of U.S. combat troops will put more U.S. Marines on street corners in Afghan villages, with too few Afghan partners alongside them," he said in his opening remarks of the hearing.
Despite the war's waning popularity among voters, there were few protesters on hand as Gates, Mullen and Clinton testified.
Vice President Joe Biden said earlier Wednesday the new surge-and-exit troop strategy is aimed more at wringing reforms from President Hamid Karzai than mollifying a war-weary American public.
Democrats criticized Obama's escalation of the 8-year-old war after his prime-time speech Tuesday night at West Point, N.Y. Republicans are unhappy with his promise to withdraw troops in 18 months, but Congress appears willing, nevertheless, to approve the buildup's $30 billion price tag.
Sen. John McCain, who lost to Obama in last year's presidential election, said he supports the build up but thinks it's wrong to signal in advance when a troop withdrawal might start. "We don't want to sound an uncertain trumpet to our friends in the region," the Arizona Republican said.
McCain asked Gates if the U.S. would withdraw troops based on "an arbitrary date."
Gates replied "I think it's the judgment of all of us . . . that we would be in a position particularly in uncontested areas where we would be able to begin that transition."
He said the July 2011 date was chosen because it was two years after the Marines went into Helmand province in a new push last summer. The secretary said he thought the United States would be in a position by December 2010 to determine whether it could begin a withdrawal by July 2011.
"I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving," Clinton said. "But what we have done . . . is to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan."
Gates called the region the "epicenter of extremist jihadism," reminding lawmakers that local and foreign Muslims had joined before — in defeating the former Soviet Union. "For them to be seen to defeat the sole remaining superpower in the same place would have severe consequences for the United States and the world," Gates said.
Congress was using the high-profile hearings to express its misgivings. Obama's escalation strategy won quick backing from NATO allies. Afghan leaders praised the speech, but also had questions about the 18-month timetable for withdrawal.
And a Taliban spokesman said Wednesday that Obama's plan was "no solution" to Afghanistan's troubles.
Obama pledged Tuesday night to an audience of Army cadets at the U.S. Military Academy that the shift from surge to exit strategy would depend on the military situation in Afghanistan.
"We will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground," Obama said, declaring that the nation's security was at stake and that the additional troops were needed to "bring this war to a successful conclusion."
The planned infusion of 30,000 U.S. troops would raise the total American military presence in Afghanistan to about 100,000.
Many Democrats said they weren't convinced that sending more troops would hasten an end to the war. They also question whether the money used for troop deployments will drain resources from other domestic priorities, like health care and job creation.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., called the plan "an expensive gamble to undertake armed nation-building on behalf of a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy."
After meeting Wednesday with Karzai, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal called Karzai's reaction to the new U.S. strategy "really positive. The president was very upbeat, very resolute this morning."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he expected the allies to bolster the American buildup with more than 5,000 additional troops. Gates said the administration would seek 5,000 to 7,000 allied forces and "expect them to share more of the burden in training, equipping, and funding" the Afghan forces.
He said the allies would remain focused on the less volatile north and west of Afghanistan to "prevent the insurgency from establishing new footholds," while Americans focus on the south and east.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed Obama's speech as "courageous, determined and lucid" but stopped short of pledging additional French troops.
Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.
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