The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday the initial wave of troop withdrawals in July will probably include combat as well as non-combat forces, part of a President Barack Obama's long-term strategy that garnered crucial support from lawmakers.
Testifying for a second day on Capitol Hill, Army Gen. David Petraeus described combat gains since last year's U.S. troop buildup, and several members of the House Armed Services Committee who recently traveled to Afghanistan echoed his assessment.
"During a visit last week with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates observed, 'The closer you get to this fight, the better it looks,'" said Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif. "Having just returned from a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan a few weeks ago, I couldn't agree more."
Petraeus' testimony to various House and Senate committees — and private meetings with congressional leaders — are designed to ensure political support for the long, costly war despite strong opposition among the American people. The Pentagon also is asking Congress to provide $553 billion for the budget year that begins Oct. 1, plus $118 billion in costs for Iraq and Afghanistan.
A clear test of that support comes on Thursday when the House votes on a resolution calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan no later than Dec. 31. The measure is expected to fail, but lawmakers and the administration will be closely watching the vote totals.
Concerns about Karzai
Tempering the talk of success against the Taliban were serious concerns about President Hamid Karzai's rule and widespread corruption.
"There are challenges given corruption and the basic lack of competence in the governance of Afghanistan. I think that gives us pause," said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.
In describing the first phase of a troop drawdown, Petraeus mentioned no numbers, nor did he identify which combat units might be pulled out to begin what Obama has called a responsible winding down of the war by 2014. The U.S. has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and its international partners have about 40,000.
"I am still formulating the options that I will provide to the president and the recommendation that I make," Petraeus said. "But I do believe there will be some combat forces included in those options and in that recommendation."
It is widely expected that a large share — if not the majority — of those initial American withdrawals will be support forces such as logistics specialists who helped in last year's U.S. troop buildup. Petraeus has said he foresees a tough combat season ahead this spring and summer.
The general said that in formulating his recommendation to Obama he will take into account several factors, including the capabilities of Afghan security forces, progress in improving the Afghan government's ability to deliver basic services, and the extent to which ordinary Afghans see their government as legitimate.
Petraeus did not say how many troops are likely to be pulled out in July, nor has Obama prescribed a specific number.
'I'm still working on the options'
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., later pressed the general to be more specific, asking whether each of the options he would present to Obama will include combat forces as part of the initial troop reduction.
Petraeus refused to be pinned down, but seemed to be less definitive about including combat troops. At one point he said they "could be included" in one or more of the options for Obama.
"I'm still working on the options," he said, noting that he has "some months" to develop them. "Any commander always wants as much flexibility as he can have prior to providing options and recommendations, and so we are going to exercise that to the best of our ability."
Petraeus provided a 20-page "Afghanistan Update" to lawmakers that spelled out the military campaign and achievements, the insurgent's objectives, growth in security forces and progress in education and government. Among the strategic risks were alliance staying power, inadequate funds, criminal patronage networks and inadequate governance and budget.
Challenges to timelines, benchmarks
Several lawmakers challenged timelines and benchmarks predicated on the Afghan government.
Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., said the goals were "almost entirely dependent upon on the actions of a corrupt central government and the growth in the size and capabilities of the Afghan national security forces."
In response, Petraeus said the United States is "not trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in a decade or less. There is a very realistic understanding of the conditions in tribal societies and — village by village, valley by valley in Afghanistan."
Still, he called it a "cancer" that would undermine Afghan institutions.
Weighing in on the conflict, potential presidential candidate Haley Barbour said the United States should consider scaling backing its presence in Afghanistan.
"What is our mission?" the Mississippi governor asked several reporters in Iowa on Tuesday. "How many al-Qaida are in Afghanistan. ...Is that a 100,000-man Army mission? ... I don't think our mission should be to think we're going to make Afghanistan an Ireland or an Italy" or a Western-style democracy.