KABUL, Afghanistan — A delegation of four U.S. senators, asserting that the U.S. counterinsurgency is making headway in Afghanistan, heightened pressure Wednesday on President Barack Obama to abandon his pledge that the United States would begin withdrawing troops in July 2011, a deadline that seems increasingly wobbly.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Obama was "wrong to set the date of July, mid-2011," to begin a phased withdrawal of roughly 100,000 U.S. troops. He said the president should unequivocally state that any U.S. pullback would be based on conditions in the country.
"He hasn't done that to my satisfaction," McCain said.
Offering a different perspective, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, told reporters that the 2011 date should not be a focal point.
"A better date to think about is 2014," he said, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai has proposed that Afghanistan take control of its own security.
In a story that appeared in Wednesday newspapers, McClatchy reported that the White House plans to de-emphasize the July 2011 date as the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal in hopes, in part, of persuading Pakistan's military that the U.S. will not soon abandon its fight against the Taliban.
Obama announced that the U.S. would begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 in a speech a year ago at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. The date has been controversial from the beginning, and McClatchy reported that senior U.S. officials say that the administration is now trying to focus attention on 2014.
On Wednesday, Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said there's been no change in policy. "The president has been crystal clear that we will begin drawing down troops in July of 2011. There is absolutely no change to that policy," Vietor said in a statement.
A White House official who briefed reporters on Tuesday about an upcoming review of progress in Afghanistan, however, carefully avoided the word "withdrawal" when asked whether "the president will be able to meet the date of July 2011 for starting pulling out the troops."
"The president has been clear that we will begin, in July '11, a responsible transition to Afghan security forces, from American combat forces to Afghan security forces," the official responded. "What's not clear, what has not yet been prescribed, is the pace of that transition. And the degree to which — how far it will go, how fast." Under the conditions of the briefing, the official cannot be identified.
At a meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia, last weekend, Undersecretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy also avoided the use of "withdrawal" in discussing administration plans for Afghanistan next year.
"July 2011, from the U.S. perspective, is the end of the surge," she said at a security conference sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based policy institute. "It is the beginning of a very careful, conditions-based process of gradual transition to Afghan-led responsibility for security. You will see the forces change over time, but I think everyone is signed up to President Karzai's goal of having lead responsibility in 2014."
The senators' assertion of progress in the Afghan war was based on briefings here with U.S. generals, including Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan. Petraeus and the other commanders argue that a reinforced counterinsurgency strategy is working but needs more time than some in Washington are willing to give it.
Lieberman said Petraeus told the delegation that the impact of the additional 30,000 U.S. troops Obama deployed to Afghanistan this summer "will not be as rapid" as the 2007 so-called "surge" of American forces in Iraq. "But progress has been made," Lieberman quoted Petraeus as saying.
The delegation also included Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
The challenge of the 2011 deadline — by all but Gillibrand — illustrates the foreign policy challenge that Obama will face in the months ahead from conservatives, now that the GOP has wrested control of the House of Representatives.
Private analysts, and even some U.S. officials, question the extent to which an influx of American troops in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces, intensified air strikes and U.S. Special Forces raids have set back the Taliban-led insurgency.
These experts say that while the American offensive has had an impact on the Taliban, disrupting supply networks and money channels, for example, the impact could be fleeting.
Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and author of several books on Central Asia, said it remains to be seen whether the U.S. offensive is sustainable; whether Afghan security forces can eventually take over from U.S. ones; and whether the Taliban will simply melt away, only to return.
"These are unanswered questions," said Rashid, who was in Kabul to attend a U.N.-sponsored conference on reconciliation in Afghanistan.
McCain said that "a good part of Kandahar," Afghanistan's second-largest city, "has the luxury of people living in a secure environment."
But reports from the province say that the Taliban, pushed from rural areas by the U.S. offensive, have moved into the city itself and begun a campaign of targeted assassinations against officials of the U.S.-backed government.
The senators, who were scheduled to meet with Karzai on Wednesday night, said they would confront him over government corruption, which they warned would doom continued U.S .backing.
After visiting Afghanistan, the senators are scheduled to travel to Pakistan, where McCain said they will confront that country's military leaders over support for Islamic militants in Afghanistan, including the al Qaida-linked Haqqani network.
(Contributing to this story were Jonathan S. Landay in Washington and Nancy A. Youssef in West Point, N.Y.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2010