On the day after President Obama laid out his new Afghanistan strategy, the question of when American troops would leave the country quickly drew the most attention, and at times the most confusion, during a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, went to Capitol Hill to explain to senators the finer points of the plan.
Gates took the lead, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that an extended commitment from the United States is an "arduous but vitally necessary mission...to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida and prevent its return" to Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Key to that mission, he said, would be an "extended surge of 18 to 24 months," beginning as early as several weeks from now. With an additional 30,000 U.S. troops, the American combat force will number about 100,000, with 52,000 troops sent to the country by Obama since his election.
Clinton said there also would be a surge in American civilian staff in the region, who will be focused on diplomatic and development missions. "We will not succeed if people view this effort as a responsibility of a single party, a single agency within our government, or a single country," she said.
Mullen assured senators of the Pentagon's support for the new strategy, which Obama developed after months of consultation with military and civilian leaders. "Every military leader in the chain of command, as well as those of the Joint Chiefs, was given voice throughout this process, and every one of us used it," Mullen said.
As senators began to question the witnesses, the issue of when troops would begin withdrawing from Afghanistan took center stage.
Although Obama said Tuesday night, "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," he later added, "We will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground."
Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the committee who had opposed a surge in combat troops, told Gates he sensed confusion surrounding the transition date. "But is that date conditions-based or not?" Levin asked.
"No sir," Gates said.
Later, Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the committee and the chief architect of the Iraq surge strategy, took Obama to task for announcing a date at all. "A withdrawal date only emboldens al-Qaida and the Taliban while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight," McCain said.
He then vented to Mullen: "You either have a winning strategy and do as we did in Iraq -- once it's succeeded then we withdraw -- or we, as the president said, we will have a date beginning withdrawal of July 2011. Which is it? It's got to be one or the other."
Mullen said Obama's 2011 target would be a "transition" date to begin shifting war-fighting and policing responsibilities to the Afghan government. But it would not necessarily be a date for withdrawal. "July 2011 is a day we start transitioning -- transferring responsibility and transitioning. It's not a date that we're leaving," Mullen said. "And the president also said that it will be based on conditions on the ground."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent Democrat on the committee, took a moment to praise Obama's decision as putting "our national security interests ahead of partisan political interests." But he, too, pressed Gates on whether American troops would begin to come home in 2011.
"I want to ask you...if I'm correct in concluding that what will definitely begin in July of 2011 is a transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans, but may not include immediately a withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan?" Lieberman asked Gates.
"That is correct," he said.
"And am I right that...there is no deadline for the end of that transfer? It will be based on conditions on the ground?"
Gates, amending his earlier answer, responded, "It will be based on conditions on the ground. But by the same token, we want to communicate to the Afghans that this is not an open-ended commitment."
Just after he told Lieberman that the American combat forces cannot stay in Afghanistan for the long-term, Gates told Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) that "we need to think in terms of a very long-term willingness to work with the Afghans." He added, "but it's not a combat presence."