WASHINGTON — The Obama administration sent what many lawmakers saw as vague and sometimes confusing signals Wednesday about its intentions in Afghanistan, leaving members of Congress unsure how to proceed as they consider his plan to deploy 30,000 more American troops there.
President Barack Obama had said Tuesday night that U.S. troops would begin leaving Afghanistan in July 2011, but under grilling Wednesday at the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that date could change. He said that "we will evaluate ... whether we believe we will be able to meet that objective" when the president and his top aides conduct an official review of the war next December.
While Obama said his troop buildup would last 18 months, Gates said it might last "18-24 months."
Further, while the president specified 30,000 as the number of additional troops to be sent, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry said Wednesday at a news conference there that as many as 35,000 more troops were being deployed.
On Capitol Hill, no consensus was emerging on how to pay for the plan, which congressional experts estimate will cost around $40 billion a year — $10 billion more than the White House said — or whether it even should go into effect. Congress could block the effort by denying funding, and no action on funding is expected until spring.
The problem, said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., was "we were not asked to do anything last night."
After talking to colleagues, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a leader of about 70 liberals in the House of Representatives who are skeptical of the U.S. policy on Afghanistan, said he couldn't get a fix on how lawmakers would proceed.
"Depending on who you talk to, you get different views," he said.
Democrats control 258 of 435 seats in the House. When House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., was asked when he thought consensus on Afghanistan might develop in the party, he said, "Someday, I hope."
House and Senate members said they wanted time to study the proposal.
"I was sympathetic to what the president said, but I want to hear more," said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo.
"We need a full debate," McGovern said. "I want an exit strategy, and I didn't hear one."
Liberals reported pressure from constituents to scrutinize the plan.
"We go home and we're getting hammered on domestic issues," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. "To justify another $30 billion a year for the war is a hard sell."
Congress could add the money to the fiscal 2010 defense spending bill, which is expected to be considered this month. That's unlikely though, since Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the chairman of the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said Wednesday that he didn't like that approach. Murtha, whose support the White House has tried hard to get, has been skeptical that the U.S. can succeed in Afghanistan.
A second alternative, pushed by some House leaders, could be a "war tax," but because of strong Senate opposition, Democratic leaders are saying privately that alternative is virtually dead.
That leaves an emergency war-funding bill, an approach the White House had said last April that it wouldn't use. However, Murtha, whose opinion carries considerable weight among House Democrats, said he expected a Pentagon request for such funding, though he said it probably would take until well into next year to get approved.
Obama did get support from moderate Democrats who dominate the Senate Armed Services Committee. Even there, though, concerns were voiced, as members heard from Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he supported an accelerated transition to Afghan forces, but he wondered "whether the rapid deployment of a large number of U.S. combat forces, without an adequate number of Afghan security forces for our troops to partner with, serves the mission."
While Obama' strategy drew praise from Republicans, the timeline he proposed to begin a withdrawal disturbed many of them.
"We don't want to sound an uncertain trumpet to our friends in the region," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's 2008 presidential opponent.
Gates explained that the July 2011 date was selected because it will be two years after the Marines went into Afghanistan's Helmand province in an aggressive push last summer.
"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," he said.
Gates also stressed that a timeline is needed to "build a fire" under the Afghan government to step up and take charge of its country's fate and not be dependent on U.S. forces. He conceded that the other audience for the timeline is "the American people, who are weary after eight years of war."
In a related flap, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld issued a statement lashing Obama for what he called a "bald misstatement" Tuesday night, in which the president said that the Bush administration repeatedly had denied commanders' requests for more troops in Afghanistan.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that Obama was referring to requests made last year, when Gates was former President George W. Bush's defense secretary. "I will let Secretary Rumsfeld explain ... whether he thinks that the effort in Afghanistan was sufficiently resourced during his tenure as secretary of defense," Gibbs said.
Rumsfeld did approve at least one such request, for some 2,000 Marines to help safeguard Afghanistan's 2004 presidential and parliamentary elections. However, a recent report by Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee found that he'd rejected a 2001 request for additional troops to block Osama bin Laden's escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
A senior U.S. military official said that Rumsfeld also made it clear to commanders in Afghanistan that they shouldn't ask for more troops, because those service members were needed to invade Iraq, while Afghanistan was an "economy of force mission." The official spoke only on the condition of anonymity, as he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists.
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
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