WASHINGTON // Barack Obama's promise to begin withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan by the summer of 2011 has ignited fierce debate on Capitol Hill and is likely to continue to do so as the US war effort escalates.
Many Republicans have attacked the time frame as "arbitrary", saying that any future withdrawal should be based purely on conditions on the ground. Democrats, meanwhile, have questioned whether Mr Obama is fully committed to the withdrawal "timeline" or what might happen if conditions do not improve over the next 18 months. Top administration officials - Robert Gates, the defence secretary, Adm Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state - appeared in the first of a series of hearings on Capitol Hill this week to defend Mr Obama's war plan.
Much to the chagrin of legislators, they provided few specifics about the exit strategy, such as how quickly US forces might leave or how long any such drawdown might take. Mr Gates described the drawdown as a "gradual process of thinning and reducing US forces", that will begin in July 2011, a date first mentioned by Mr Obama in his speech on Tuesday. He added that the administration plans to engage in a "thorough" review of the war effort in December 2010.
Adm Mullen said that by July 2011 officials expect to know "whether we are going to succeed here or not". He stressed that this is "not a date that we're leaving". Many analysts believe that Mr Obama's decision to set a timeline is, in part, a political calculation to sell the revised strategy to a war-weary American public and liberal legislators who criticised George W Bush for lacking an endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But, for now, the lack of specifics has irked legislators on both sides of the aisle and only raised more questions. John McCain, the Arizona senator and former Republican presidential candidate, said imposing an advance timeline for the US commitment "makes no sense". "I think that's the wrong impression to give our friends. It's the wrong impression to give our enemies," he said on Wednesday during a Senate armed services committee hearing, adding that the exit strategy has "not been made clear at all".
Among the concerns voiced by Mr McCain and other Republicans is that setting a timeline will allow the Taliban and al Qa'eda to lay low and wait for US forces to leave the country, only to re-emerge once US troops return home. Mr Gates responded to that concern in his testimony, saying he would "welcome" a decision by the Taliban to stand down for the next 18 months because it would create space for the United States and its allies to "build capacity".
Eliot Engel, a New York congressman, echoed many of his Democratic colleagues' concerns on Wednesday when he told the administration officials during a House foreign affairs committee hearing that, despite Mr Obama's assurances, he fears US troops will be "bogged down in an endless war". "What happens if this doesn't work?" he asked. "Do we leave in three years as the president stated or do we stay longer?"
Many legislators also have sought assurances that Mr Obama will not suddenly change his mind on the troop withdrawal timeline and decide to keep troops in Afghanistan longer. Administration officials, however, have not been able to provide them. "I think the president, as commander in chief, always has the option to adjust his decisions," said Mr Gates, who called Mr Obama's promise to scale down the war in 18 months a sign of the president's "strong intent".
"I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving," added Mrs Clinton. "What we have done - is to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan." firstname.lastname@example.org