Administration Fends Off Calls for Afghanistan Commander to Testify on Strategy
Pentagon is rebuffing congressional calls for the top U.S. commander in
Afghanistan to personally make the case for the war, amid the growing
political tumult over the Obama administration's handling of the
An array of powerful lawmakers from both parties, including the
Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, want Gen.
Stanley McChrystal to testify about the challenges confronting the U.S.
and its allies in Afghanistan and his plan for beating back the
The calls to testify come as the Pentagon has asked Gen. McChrystal
to delay his request for more troops while the administration rethinks
strategy in the wake of last month's Afghan elections, which have been
racked by allegations of fraud.
It also comes as public support for the war is waning badly. In a
NBC-Wall Street Journal poll conducted between last Thursday and
Sunday, 59% of respondents said they were now "less confident" that the
war would come to a successful conclusion. Just over half of those
polled said they opposed adding more U.S. troops in the country, while
more than a third favored an immediate withdrawal.
and Republicans in Congress note that the Bush administration made Gen.
David Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Baghdad, available for
days of high-profile hearings on the conduct of the war in 2007, as a
similar debate was raging over troop levels in that war.
"You hear it from the horse's mouth," said Rep. Ike Skelton (D.,
Mo.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "He is the
general in charge."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) echoed the call for Gen.
McChrystal to testify, telling reporters that it "would be useful" for
the commander to personally tell lawmakers about "his sense of the
success that changing strategies would have."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has refused to make Gen. McChrystal
available for testimony on Capitol Hill until the administration
completes a broad review of its entire strategy for the war. "Secretary
Gates still believes Gen. McChrystal's focus right now should be on
managing the war in Afghanistan rather than wading into the debate
about it back here in Washington," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell
The Obama administration announced a new counterinsurgency strategy
for Afghanistan in March that was designed to protect Afghan civilians
from violence, and to improve their daily lives through economic
development and better governance.
administration officials now believe that approach should be discarded
in favor of a stepped-up push to kill individual Taliban leaders and
financiers -- a strategy long favored by Vice President Joe Biden.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, said he is braced for the Obama administration to
table "a fairly significant reappraisal" of the U.S. strategy in
Afghanistan. That reappraisal has been triggered, he said, by mounting
concerns over the country's weak governance and the corruption shown in
the recent election.
"The president is correct to step back and say, 'What are we going
to do here?'" said Sen. Kerry. He said he has his own "serious
questions" about whether more U.S. troops are really needed in
Afghanistan and would like to hear directly from Gen. McChrystal.
Many of Mr. Obama's fellow Democrats are increasingly uneasy about
his handling of the conflict. California's two senators, Dianne
Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have both expressed wariness over the
current strategy and urged the administration to lay out a clear exit
strategy. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has argued that earlier troop
build-ups in the country were counterproductive.
In the House, more than half of the Democratic caucus voted this
summer in favor of an amendment, put forward by Massachusetts Rep. Jim
McGovern, requiring the Pentagon to furnish an exit strategy for
Afghanistan. The measure failed.
Democratic leaders have been trying to tamp down the signs of
dissent within the party. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urged his
caucus earlier this month to "just take it easy" and "wait until the
president makes up his mind as to what he thinks should be done."
Follow events in Afghanistan and Pakistan, day by day.
Democrats like Rhode Island's Sen. Jack Reed want to replace the
administration's strategy for Afghanistan with a hybrid Afghanistan
policy designed to scale back American objectives in Afghanistan
without letting the country fall apart.
These Democrats are leery of a troop increase, arguing that the main
effort has to focus on building up the Afghan army while increasing the
U.S. and NATO civilian presence in the country.
Sen. Reed has spoken in favor of a strategy that would relinquish
the fight against the Taliban in many of the disputed areas of the
country in order to focus on protecting key population centers.
Gen. McChrystal has advocated a similar strategy in his confidential
assessment of the war. U.S. troops are already pulling out of some
remote outposts in Afghanistan.
Republican lawmakers, who have been the most supportive of the
Afghan war effort, are also beginning to push for testimony from the
top commander on the ground.
Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee this week
wrote a letter to the panel's chairman, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin,
asking for a McChrystal hearing.
"The American people are due a full and public accounting of the
challenges and commitments that lay before us," Arizona Sen. John
McCain, the committee's senior Republican, wrote in the letter. In a
written statement, Sen. Levin dismissed the request as premature.
In the House, Mr. Skelton is one of the most influential voices calling for hearings with Gen. McChrystal.
The lawmaker sent a formal request for such a hearing to Mr. Gates
last month, writing that he believed Gen. McChrystal should appear
before his panel at the end of the 60-day assessment, which was
completed Aug. 30.
"There is significant interest in Congress and among the public in
the outcome of General McChrystal's assessment and any resulting
changes in our strategy or operations," Mr. Skelton wrote in the Aug.
13 letter. "A good way to address this desire for information would be
to have General McChrystal appear at a hearing."
In an interview, Mr. Skelton said that he hasn't heard back from the
Pentagon about his request, and warned that he might take stronger
steps if his request was denied.
"They don't get a penny without us, and we of course make policy along with paying the bills," Mr. Skelton said.
Write to Yochi J. Dreazen at firstname.lastname@example.org, Neil King Jr. at email@example.com and Peter Spiegel at firstname.lastname@example.org