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McKeon urges Obama to speed Afghanistan policy review

Posted: October 14, 2009 2:02 p.m.
Updated: October 14, 2009 2:39 p.m.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S. House Armed Services Committee Tuesday held a hearing with outside experts, including the former Vice Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army, to gather strategy recommendations for the war in Afghanistan.

Ranking Member Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) released the following opening statement for the full committee hearing:

"Mr. Chairman, I commend you for holding this hearing. In early September General McChrystal provided the Secretary of Defense his sixty day assessment on the security situation in Afghanistan.

"With the release of the McChrystal assessment and the President's ensuing strategy review, our country finds itself in a debate over our future commitment to the conflict. The debate has largely taken place in the media with the Congress and White House as largely passive players.

"That is why today's hearing is so important. A true national debate on the war cannot be packaged in made for TV two minute sound bites and 700-word op-ed columns heavy on rhetoric. The Congress is where national policy debates belong and the Armed Services committee is Congress' designated venue for addressing matters of war.

"We must recall that is the President who called for public discussion of the war in Afghanistan. In the absence of the Commander-in-Chief leading the debate, I think the best way this Congress and the American people can evaluate our next steps in Afghanistan is to have General McChrystal testify. Chairman Skelton and I sent letters to Secretary Gates requesting General McChrystal's testimony before this body. We are still waiting for an answer.

"So where are we in the debate? After nine months in office, President Obama's Afghanistan policy is in the same place where he found it in January: in a state of drift and lacking direction. Six months after outlining a strategy which calls for ‘executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy', the President has once again called for a review of our strategy and now questions the underlying assumptions of that strategy.

"The current strategy review has put into question the nature of the threat we face in Afghanistan and whether we have the right strategy to defeat the threat.

"While the question of whether to send additional forces into Afghanistan may seem to be a detail of a larger debate, I think it is the correct place to begin the discussion. The President's response to General McChrystal's request for forces will reveal how he views the threat and what strategy he intends to pursue in Afghanistan.

"As we've recently learned, words on a White House white paper are easily erased. It is the forces you put in the field that demonstrate the true nature of our commitment to our military, our country, the citizens of Afghanistan, and our enemies.

"I'm in agreement with Chairman Skelton on what must be done in Afghanistan. I believe that to prevent al-Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan we need to leave that country in a stable position. I think the President's March strategy had it right: a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy is the best way to ensure that the Taliban will not run a shadow government out of Kandahar and play host to al Qaeda. A fully resourced COIN mission has a proven track record of defeating insurgencies and is General McChrystal's lowest risk option.

"Presently, we find ourselves in a stalemate in Afghanistan and the Taliban has the momentum. As General McChrystal stated in his assessment, ‘Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months)...risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.'

"In other words, time is of the essence. Our forces need a strategy that everyone in the chain-of-command supports in word and in deed.

"Given the urgency of the situation, I have a number of concerns about how the debate in Washington will affect the war in Afghanistan.

"First, I'm concerned about the continued drift of our Afghanistan strategy. It is unfair to our forces in theater to fight a war while the strategy remains in limbo. Last week the President told members of Congress that his decision will be timely. My hope and expectation is that the President will make a decision on resources in the coming week and stick with it. We cannot win if we conduct quarterly strategy changes. To be sure, nips and tucks are appropriate, but wholesale reconstructive surgery is a recipe for disaster.

"My second concern is the looming intelligence hook. Proponents of a minimally resourced strategy-of which there a few if any who are military experts-question the nexus between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. If the intent is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda, goes the argument, then defeating the Taliban is less of a concern.

"To date, I have not seen any intelligence that disaggregates al-Qaeda from the Taliban. I'm worried that we're going to see ‘new' analysis that justifies a more limited war strategy on the basis that we can now tolerate Mullah Omar's Taliban in Afghanistan. We all know the perils of driving intelligence analysis to fit preferred policy outcomes.

"My last concern is that the debate is muddying the clear national security interest at stake in this war. If the conflict in Afghanistan is not worth the costs then what conflict is worthy?

"In my view, Afghanistan is ground zero when it comes to the risk of a world where al Qaeda, safe havens, narco-traffickers and nuclear weapons connect. If there is a venue for a military that has been reoriented to fight irregular forces then Afghanistan is the place. Our military has spent eight years refining how to execute this fight; now that expertise risks being shelved.

"In my view, if the President departs from the March strategy he will be rejecting key assumptions about the threats we face and strategies we need to prevent another 9/11. A half measure in Afghanistan is tantamount to a doctrinal shift away from all the lessons learned since al-Qaeda attacked our homeland over eight years ago. This will endanger our homeland and put our forces at risk."


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