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Congress Presses Pentagon on Afghanistan Funding, Withdrawal Date

In addition to consequential weeks on FinReg, jobs, climate change and energy, this is becoming a consequential week on Afghanistan, where lawmakers are nervous about continuing a mission that looks adrift. House and Senate Democrats pressured Pentagon leaders in hearings yesterday, questioning whether any progress was being made after nine years of war. Carl Levin, Patty Murray, Byron Dorgan and Patrick Leahy in particular challenged the Pentagon on this point. Even more damaging is the report from experts asserting no political strategy to leave the country.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is focused on meeting its July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but it has no political strategy to help stabilize the country, current and former U.S. officials and other experts are warning.

The failure to articulate what a post-American Afghanistan should look like and devise a political path for achieving it is a major obstacle to success for the U.S. military-led counter-insurgency campaign that’s underway, these officials and experts said.

The result is “strategic confusion,” said Ronald E. Neumann, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-07.

While the military’s counter-insurgency strategy is well understood, “there is plenty more uncertainty over the political strategy which needs to complement ISAF’s (International Security Assistance Force) work,” wrote Simon Shercliff, a British diplomat, on his Internet blog after a two-day conference last week of U.S. officials and outside experts at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. “Everyone agrees that we need to develop one, but there is little consensus on what it should look like.”

The July 2011 “inflection point,” transitioning to withdrawal, is of particular concern to Republicans. And CENTCOM Commander David Petraeus seemed to give conflicting answers on this point. At a Senate hearing, he affirmed the inflection point, while stating that the rate of withdrawal would be determined by “conditions on the ground.” He told Sen. Ted Kaufman that “July 2011 is etched in stone.” However, at a House meeting, Petraeus stated that lacking those conditions would lead to him endorsing a delay:

During a House hearing Wednesday, California Republican Rep. Buck McKeon asked Petraeus what conditions would have to be in place for troops to leave.
Petraeus said there would have to be better security and governance, and an Afghan security force able to contribute to that stability.

Asked what happens if those conditions don’t exist, Petraeus said he would recommend a delay in the withdrawal.

“If that’s what’s necessary, that’s what I will do,” he said.

There’s a subtle but noticeable difference between those two statements.

An even bigger question is the fate of the war supplemental, which is tied in with the concern over the mission. David Obey has stalled bringing the supplemental to the floor until the fate of the jobs bill is determined. But Robert Gates demanded a bill by the Fourth of July, warning of difficulties after that.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told senators Wednesday that the Pentagon will have to do “stupid things” if Congress doesn’t approve a $33 billion supplemental spending request by July 4.

The military sought passage of the wartime spending bill before Memorial Day, but that slipped by, making the July 4 recess the next must-pass deadline.

Funding for the Navy and Marine Corps will begin to run out in July, forcing the Pentagon to disrupt other programs. And by early to mid-August, the military may have to start furloughing civilians and might not be able to pay members of the active-duty military.

While Gates thinks Congress exists to shovel more money to the war effort, the events on the ground seem to warrant a more deliberative process. We have a war in Afghanistan presumably designed to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven in the country, when Gen. Petraeus admits that only “double digits” of Al Qaeda fighters exist there. The invasions of Marja and Kandahar are faltering, and the political partner in the government of Hamid Karzai offers no comfort. The Afghan security forces are something on the order of a national joke. Congress can and should reconsider their blank check, whether Gates likes it or not.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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