WASHINGTON — The increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan was on the hot seat on Capitol Hill on Wednesday as the ever-optimistic commander of the U.S. mission was likened to drug-addled TV star Charlie Sheen while skeptical lawmakers questioned why America remains mired in the conflict.
Gen. David Petraeus faced tough queries from lawmakers for the second consecutive day on Wednesday, this time by the House of Representatives’ armed services committee.
Petraeus insisted the United States must not abandon Afghanistan, raising the spectre of more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil like those that killed almost 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001.
Asked repeatedly why the U.S. should remain a presence there, Petraeus said: “Two words, and those are 9-11 …. It would be a mistake, a big mistake, to go down that road again.”
But even in a country where the trauma of 9-11 is seared into the nation’s collective memory, polls suggest most Americans are fed up with the war.
The most recent, a Washington Post-ABC survey, found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe it’s a conflict that’s no longer worth fighting.
Petraeus, whose son is fighting in Afghanistan, said he empathized with those Americans.
“I think it is understandable that the American people could be frustrated that we’ve been at this for 10 years and, you know, we haven’t won yet,” he said.
A Democratic lawmaker suggested she agreed with a recent assessment by the editor of Rolling Stone magazine that Petraeus is giving the “Charlie Sheen counter-insurgency strategy” by repeatedly insisting the U.S. is “winning” the war and hoping if he says it often enough, the news media will start to believe him.
Lynn Woolsey, a California congresswoman, also told Petraeus he has offered only “bland and tone-deaf talking points” on how the July withdrawal will actually happen.
The withdrawal, in fact, was a key topic of questioning for the four-star general.
Canada’s 2,800 servicemen and women stationed in Kandahar will end combat operations by the end of July, but up to 950 troops and support staff will remain in Kabul until 2014 to help train the Afghan National Army.
Petraeus, grilled on how many U.S. combat troops will stay behind, told the committee that some fighters will be among those coming out of Afghanistan in July, but added he’s “still formulating the options that I will provide to the president.”
Neither the administration nor the military has provided a specific number of how many U.S. troops will be pulled out of Afghanistan in July.
Defense Secretary Bob Gates recently muddied the waters on the withdrawal when he accused U.S. allies of abandoning Afghanistan when the country most needed their support.
“Frankly, there is too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right,” Gates said in a speech last week to NATO defence ministers, including Canada’s Peter MacKay.
“Too much discussion of exit and not enough discussion about continuing the fight. Too much concern about when and how many troops might redeploy and not enough about what needs to be done before they leave.”
He also suggested the initial U.S. troop withdrawal would be paltry, involving no more than several thousand soldiers. It’s widely anticipated that it’s predominately American support troops, not combat troops, that will begin coming out of Afghanistan in July.
“We will not sacrifice the significant gains made to date, or the lives lost, for a political gesture,” Gates said.
As he did during his testimony to a Senate committee on Tuesday, Petraeus insisted U.S. troops are making progress in convincing Taliban fighters to abandon the insurgency. In the past few months, he said, hundreds of Taliban have officially “reintegrated” with Afghan authorities and as many as 2,000 more are about to do so.
Another 2,000 have “informally reintegrated” by returning to their villages and laying down their weapons, he estimated.
But Petraeus added it was impossible to estimate how many Taliban remained fighting in Afghanistan as the spring fighting season kicks off. At one point, an estimated 25,000 Taliban were said to be engaged.
“There’s also no question that these are resilient organizations, and that they can find others to put into these positions,” Petraeus said.
But he testified senior Taliban leaders have been demoralized by their defeats in Afghanistan, and some “literally have (had) enough of it” and are voluntarily bowing out.
But his insistence that “the momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas” stands in stark contrast to the assessment by U.S. intelligence officials.
James Clapper, President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, and Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate committee that while the Taliban is under pressure, its influence is pervasive throughout much of Afghanistan.
“We have enjoyed tactical defeats and operational successes against the Taliban,” Burgess said. “However, the Taliban does remain resilient and will be able to threaten U.S. and international goals in Afghanistan through 2011.”
Clapper also gave a bleak assessment of the future, saying the intelligence community has serious concerns about “the ability of the Afghan government to pick up their responsibility for governance.”
Lawmakers, indeed, peppered Petraeus with questions about corruption in Afghanistan, and why the U.S. was apparently pouring money and devoting troops to a government that will likely collapse once it leaves.
“We are not, of course, trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in a decade or less,” Petraeus said after providing details about criminal patronage networks that allow Afghan crooks to break the law without punishment.
“We are after what is, in a sense, good enough for Afghanistan.”