WASHINGTON (AP) — Top Obama administration officials warned Congress on Wednesday about "severe consequences for the United States and the world" if a troop surge fails to halt a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
Democratic allies of President Barack Obama expressed fears that the U.S. is shouldering too much of the military burden as the administration tried to make its case in Congress a day after Obama announced he was sending an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan, some as early as Christmas.
Obama also revealed a goal of commencing a U.S. troop withdrawal 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."
The insurgency already has gained "dominant influence" in 11 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also appeared with Mullen and Gates 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 in a cavernous hearing room. Unlike 2007, when the Bush administration's troop build up in Iraq prompted angry chants by protesters, there were only three visible members of the famed "Code Pink" anti-war group. They held up signs denouncing the troop buildup and calling the war hopeless.
Vice President Joe Biden said earlier Wednesday that the new surge-and-exit troop strategy in Afghanistan is aimed more at wringing reforms from President Hamid Karzai than mollifying a war-weary American public. He said the principal aim of the new policy is to protect the United States from further terrorist attack while also keeping the Taliban from overrunning the country.
Democrats complained about 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, reiterated Wednesday that while he supports the president's build up, he believes it's a mistake to signal in advance when a troop withdrawal might begin. Obama said in his prime-time West Point speech Tuesday that it could commence as early as July 2011.
The Arizona Republican said: "We don't want to sound an uncertain trumpet to our friends in the region."
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."
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.
On Capitol Hill, 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 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."
McChrystal, Obama's field commander in Afghanistan, said U.S. and NATO forces would hand over responsibility for the fight against the Taliban to Afghan security forces "as rapidly as conditions allow."
Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, who also met with McChrystal, sought more details about how the Afghan security forces would be trained and expanded in the next 18 months — a time frame that he said was too short for a complete handoff from international forces.
"That kind of time frame will give us momentum," Atmar said. "We are hoping that there will be clarity in terms of long-term growth needs of the Afghan national security forces and what can be achieved in 18 months."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he expected the allies to bolster the American buildup with more than 5,000 additional troops. He said the best way to overcome widespread public opposition in Europe is by demonstrating progress, starting by transferring control of parts of the country to the Afghan government.
"Albania will respond positively to such a commitment and for sure that we will send additional troops again," Albanian Foreign Minister Ilir Meta said, without specifying how many extra troops his country might send. Albania currently has 250 troops in Afghanistan.
At a meeting of foreign ministers in Athens, Greece, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said: "Some countries are ready now to make commitments to provide additional troops or additional funds, some are now just examining it. We understand that they need a little bit of time to digest exactly what the president's proposed."
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 and Heidi Vogt in Kabul contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.