WASHINGTON — The nation’s top military officer and its top diplomat made clear Thursday that President Barack Obama rejected the advice of his generals in choosing a quicker path to winding down the war in Afghanistan.
The Obama troop withdrawal plan, widely interpreted as marking the beginning of the end of the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, drew criticism from both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill. Some Republicans decried it as undercutting the military mission at a critical stage of the war, while many Democrats called it too timid.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took a swipe at Obama from the Senate floor, questioning the timing of his troop pullout plan.
“Just when they are one year away from turning over a battered and broken enemy in both southern and eastern Afghanistan to our Afghan partners — the president has now decided to deny them the forces that our commanders believe they need to accomplish their objective,” McCain said.
Obama announced Wednesday night that he will pull 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by December and another 23,000 by the end of next summer. On Thursday, the president spoke at New York’s Fort Drum to troops and commanders of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Its headquarters staff is in southern Afghanistan and its soldiers have been among the most frequently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.
Obama, perhaps responding to the flank of criticism from the right, said that he is not pulling home troops “precipitously” or risking the gain they’ve achieved.
“We’re going to do it in a steady way to make sure that the gains that all of you helped to bring about are going to be sustained,” he said. “Because of you, we’re now taking the fight to the Taliban, instead of the Taliban bringing the fight to us. And because of you, there are signs that the Taliban may be interested in figuring out a political settlement, which ultimately is going to be critical for consolidating that country.”
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that he supports the Obama plan, although he had recommended a less aggressive drawdown schedule.
Obama’s approach adds risk to the military mission, Mullen said. But he added, “It’s manageable risk.”
Obama’s plan will leave 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the drawdown. Most of those troops would gradually come home over the next two years, and the U.S. plans to close out its combat role in Afghanistan by 2015.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tacitly acknowledged the military had wanted more troops to remain for a longer period of time. And she said the keys to finally ending the conflict will be political negotiations with the Taliban leadership and managing a highly contentious relationship with Pakistan.
Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that prospects for successful peace talks with the Taliban are unclear. She said the U.S. was involved in “very preliminary” contacts with the Taliban, which she said has only recently shown signs that it may be ready to talk about a political settlement.
Such contacts with enemies are distasteful but worthwhile, she said, given the historical fact that few insurgencies have been defeated without a combination of military pressure and negotiation.
“This is not a pleasant business, but a necessary one,” she said.
Clinton added that she was hopeful about a political settlement. Still, she said, “We’re a long way from knowing what the realistic elements of such an agreement would be.”
At least as murky is the outlook for cooperation with Pakistan. Clinton said the administration is stepping up pressure on Islamabad to take more aggressive action to help eliminate extremist elements like the Haqqani terrorist network.
“When it comes to our military aid … we are not prepared to continue providing that at the pace we were providing it unless and until we see certain steps taken,” she said, noting that Pakistan and U.S. interests do not always mesh well.
“It has in the past invested in a certain amount of instability in Afghanistan,” she said. “It also does not want Afghanistan to become a satellite of India.”
Mullen, who is retiring this fall, also cited the importance of the political dimensions of the conflict. Much of the questioning from committee members, however, focused on his opening statement in which he declared his support for Obama’s troop withdrawal plan while also making clear that he originally considered it a mistake.
“The president’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept,” Mullen said. “More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course. But that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the president, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take. I believe he has done so.”
Some in Congress have suggested that Obama was playing politics with the war plan, questioning why he would insist that the last of the 33,000 “surge” troops he ordered to Afghanistan in December 2009 leave the country by September 2012, which happens to coincide with the home stretch of his re-election campaign.
Military commanders favored a withdrawal plan that would allow them to keep as many of the 33,000 surge troops in Afghanistan for as long as possible, ideally through the end of 2012. Even with their full removal by September 2012, there will be about 68,000 troops remaining. That is twice as many as were there when Obama took office in January 2009.
Mullen said the two four-star generals most directly involved in managing the war — the Central Command chief, Marine Gen. James Mattis, and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David Petraeus — both support the president’s plan.
All three offered their views to Obama, “freely and without hesitation,” Mullen said, as part of what he described as an inclusive and comprehensive White House decision-making process.
In her testimony, Clinton said it should be no surprise that U.S. commanders had pushed for a slower drawdown of troops.
“I think it would be totally understandable that a military commander would want as many troops for as long as he could get them,” Clinton said. “But any military commander with the level of expertise and experience that Gen. Petraeus has also knows that what he wants is just part of the overall decision matrix and that there are other factors at work.”
Petraeus, addressing the drawdown calendar during his Senate hearing on his nomination to be the next CIA director, said he made specific recommendations to Obama during a process that he called vigorous and inclusive.
“The ultimate decision was a more aggressive formulation, if you will, in terms of the timeline, than what we had recommended. Again, that is understandable,” the general said. He did not cite specifics of his own recommendation to Obama, but he portrayed the disagreement as narrow. “We’re talking about small differences.”
Petraeus said his job was to make assessments of the best way to accomplish the stated military goals of the Afghan mission, while others “above me,” including the president, have other considerations beyond military ones.
“There has never been a military commander in history who has had all the forces he wanted,” Petraeus said.
Petraeus’ designated replacement in Kabul is Marine Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, whose Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for next week.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Julie Pace and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP