WASHINGTON -- A deeply skeptical Congress on Wednesday resigned itself to President Barack Obama's escalation of the Afghanistan war, even as the president's chief military and diplomatic advisers sought to cool any expectations that the war would end in two years.
Leading Democrats said they had serious misgivings about the deployment of 30,000 more troops but would not try to stop the deployments or block the $30 billion the military will need. Republicans said they support the force increase even as they questioned Obama's July 2011 deadline to start bringing troops home.
The response was the best Obama could have hoped for from a Congress sharply divided on the war.
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"It's not likely that there would be any circumstances where the president would lose this battle this year" with lawmakers, said Rep. John Murtha, a vocal war critic who oversees military spending.
In House and Senate hearings on Wednesday, Obama's advisers warned that the stakes were great. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said losing the war "would have severe consequences for the United States and the world."
The testimony was aimed at building support among war-weary lawmakers for Obama's dramatic rewrite of the battle plan in Afghanistan. By the end of next summer, the president plans to increase to 100,000 the number of U.S. troops there, marking the largest expansion of the war since it began eight years ago. The new strategy, announced by the president Tuesday night, also relies on a pledge by NATO to commit an additional 5,000 to 7,000 troops.
With voter support of the war on the decline, Democrats sought assurances that Obama's target date to begin withdrawing troops was firm and that the focus would remain on training Afghan security forces.
"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," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Republicans objected to the setting of a hard deadline for withdrawing troops and said Obama must be willing to delay the start of a pullout if security deteriorates.
"We don't want to sound an uncertain trumpet to our friends in the region," said John McCain, the Senate panel's top Republican and Obama's opponent in last year's presidential race.
Gates suggested the withdrawal start date was both firm and flexible, frustrating lawmakers who said that wasn't possible.
When pressed, Gates said the beginning of drawing down troops would not necessarily be based on conditions in Afghanistan and that the president was committed to begin pulling at least some troops out by the target date.
At the same time, the president will have the authority to change gears after the Defense Department conducts a formal assessment in December 2010.
"We're not just going to throw these guys in the swimming pool and walk away," Gates said of the Afghan security force.
Gates said the July 2011 date was chosen because it would give the Marines two years to complete a security push in Helmand province that began last July.
Added Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving. But what we have done ... is to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan."
As part of a full-court press by the White House to make the case for Obama's new strategy, Gates, Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued for the troop increase. But they were careful with their words so as not to aggravate divisions on the issue.
Clinton and Gates cast the war situation as serious but not hopeless. Mullen said the Taliban had recaptured ground in Afghanistan _ gaining "dominant influence" in 11 of 34 provinces _ but could be defeated with enough resources and time.
"While there are no guarantees in war, I expect that we will make significant headway in the next 18-24 months," he said.
Gates told lawmakers that the situation is far less dire than the violent chaos that gripped Iraq in 2006. Still, he said, "This will take more patience, perseverance and sacrifice by the United States and our allies."
The buildup also will put more strain on troops by giving them less time than hoped for at home.
Mullen said supplying the extra forces for Afghanistan while there are still so many troops in Iraq will mean putting off for a couple of years the goal of lengthening the time they rest and retrain at home between tours of duty _ a period the military calls "dwell time." The Army had been moving toward giving two years of dwell time between each one-year tour.
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 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 Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington contributed to this report.
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