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Senators question US policy, use of troops in Afghanistan

Seek more details before backing increase in forces

Afghan Army soldiers and police officers patrolled by pickup truck near Kunduz yesterday. Afghan Army soldiers and police officers patrolled by pickup truck near Kunduz yesterday. (Anja Niedringhaus/ Associated Press)
By Matthew Lee
Associated Press / September 14, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Congressional skepticism over the Obama administration’s plans for Afghanistan mounted yesterday as four senators questioned whether more troops should head there and one lawmaker called for a withdrawal timeline.

Democrats Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Diane Feinstein of California, and Dick Durbin of Illinois along with Republican Susan M. Collins of Maine said they shared colleagues’ concerns about boosting troop levels before substantial bolstering of the Afghan military and police.

“I just don’t know that more troops is the answer. We clearly need more American civilians to help build up institutions. We need to grow the size of the Afghan Army. But we’re dealing with widespread corruption, a very difficult terrain, and I’m just wondering where this ends and how we’ll know if this succeeded,’’ said Collins, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The committee chairman, Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, has urged the White House to avoid escalating the war and to speed up training for Afghan security forces instead of sending more US troops into combat.

Durbin said he agreed with Levin.

“I think at this point sending additional troops would not be the right thing to do,’’ he said. “At this point we should follow Senator Levin’s suggestion. Let’s get it right on the ground; let the Afghans bring stability to their own country. Let’s work with them to make that happen.’’

Shaheen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said she understood Levin’s concerns but stressed that she wanted more information on the administration’s Afghanistan policy from General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and NATO forces there. He recently submitted a broad review of Afghan strategy to President Obama.

“I think we need to get the measurements that Congress has mandated from the White House on how we’re going to determine progress in Afghanistan,’’ she said.

She added that “while I appreciate Senator Levin’s concerns and think they’re very real, I think it’s too soon to be able to make that determination. We need to assess these reports.’’

Feinstein, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she supported training the Afghan security forces but did not believe US goals in Afghanistan had been outlined clearly.

“My view is that the mission has to be very clear. I believe it is not now,’’ she said. “I do not believe we can build a democratic state in Afghanistan. I believe it will remain a tribal entity.’’

She called for a specific date for the withdrawal of American forces:

“I believe the mission should be time-limited, that there should be no, ‘Well, we’ll let you know in a year and a half, depending on how we do.’ I think the Congress is entitled to know, after Iraq, exactly how long are we going to be in Afghanistan.’’

Shaheen, Feinstein, and Collins spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union.’’ Durbin spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press.’’ Their comments were made as the administration considers whether to boost the number of US troops in Afghanistan beyond the 68,000 approved to be there by the end of the year. Congressional leaders are expected to be briefed this week on McChrystal’s review.

In western Afghanistan, a battle that included airstrikes killed dozens of Taliban militants after an insurgent ambush left three US troops dead, an Afghan official said yesterday.

The hourslong battle took place Saturday in the western province of Farah after a attack that also killed seven Afghan troops, said Major Abdul Basir Ghori, Afghan army spokesman. He said about 50 militants were killed in the battle, but no other Afghan officials could immediately confirm that figure.

The insurgent ambush involved two roadside bombs, gunfire, and rocket-propelled grenades, Captain Elizabeth Mathias, a US military spokeswoman, said yesterday. Mathias confirmed that fighting in the west continued for six to eight hours after the ambush but could not provide any casualty figures.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to request additional forces to address what he sees as shortfalls in the military’s ability to deal with a rising threat from roadside bombs in Afghanistan. That would not necessarily mean more forces above the current 68,000, but it might require replacing some forces with others specializing in bomb detection and removal.