WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats plan to give the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan a chance Tuesday to explain how he will use an emergency infusion of 30,000 U.S. forces and whether he will be able to assure lawmakers that these troops will begin to be brought home in 18 months.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal is the star witness for a second round of congressional questioning since President Barack Obama announced the Afghanistan war surge last week. McChrystal had warned of failure without an addition of about 40,000 U.S. forces and, like other military leaders, he has made clear that the 18-month timeline is not a firm deadline to close out the war.
Many Democrats opposed to the escalation will try to get the general to say Obama's plan is inconsistent, congressional aides said Monday. Based on his statements ahead of the decision, it's clear McChrystal would have made different choices. Nevertheless, he is expected to salute the new program.
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On the other side, Republicans are likely to press McChrystal to apply the most elastic terms possible to that 18-month timeline for the surge.
Visiting Afghanistan on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated that the administration expects the withdrawal, beginning in July 2011, to be "a several-year process — whether it's three years or two years or four years remains to be seen."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said his country will need international help to build homegrown security forces well beyond that date. "For a number of years, maybe for another 15 to 20 years, Afghanistan will not be able to sustain a force of that nature and capability with its own resources," Karzai said during a joint press conference with Gates in Kabul.
McChrystal's Capitol Hill testimony follows a particularly pointed assessment of the stakes in Afghanistan from his boss, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, on Monday.
"We are not winning, which means we are losing," Mullen told troops who will soon go to Afghanistan as part of the first wave of the surge. As the U.S. and its partners lose ground, insurgents gain new recruits, Mullen said.
"That's why we need the 30,000" and the fast deployment calendar Obama chose, Mullen said at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
In Washington, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee parted company with some congressional Democrats to say Obama made the right call to add troops. The defense panel will be the first to hear from McChrystal and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry.
"Our committee will talk to Gen. McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry to confirm that we have the right strategy in place, that our military operations support that strategy, and that our military is getting the support that it needs from civilian partners," said committee chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo.
McChrystal was effectively barred from testifying earlier during Obama's long deliberation, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others in the administration saying the general should only speak after Obama had made his choice. That angered several Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, but the prohibition stuck.
McChrystal himself angered some of his civilian bosses, including Gates, by describing his preferred strategy before Obama had chosen his. And Eikenberry caused perhaps the largest stir ahead of the announcement by firing off two strongly worded classified messages to Washington, opposing a large troop increase and telling Obama that Afghan President Hamid Karzai could not be trusted.
Eikenberry is a former Army general who had commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan. His sudden opposition to a troop increase stunned some colleagues at the Pentagon and angered others.
Associates of both men say that Eikenberry and McChrystal are not friendly, although they have described one another as friends. At the least it is clear they are not the hand-in-glove team of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker that oversaw the Iraq troop surge and testified side-by-side so frequently that they became familiar figures to many Americans.
For Eikenberry, questions are expected to center on whether he can support the increase and continue to work as the front line U.S. emissary to the Karzai government.
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