Several legislators asked what would happen if the Afghans weren't ready by then. Gates and Mullen replied that they and the U.S. commanders in the field calculate that, because of Obama's surge (and they did call it a "surge"), some Afghans will be ready by then. But a review of the situation will be conducted in December 2010; and if it looks like the Afghans won't be ready by the following July, the administration may have to rethink its strategy.
In any case, Gates emphasized, even if the time seems ripe to pull out all U.S. combat forces, that doesn't mean all U.S. troops will leave. We will continue to support Afghan security forces—through training, supplies, and other means—as an "important partner for the long haul." Referring to the time 20 years ago when the CIA helped the mujahedeen oust the Soviet Union and then walked away, he added, "We will not repeat the mistakes of 1989." (Back then, Gates was the CIA's deputy director.)
Gates did note that Obama will withdraw some troops in July 2011 and that he's inclined to see the date as "the beginning of a gradual process of thinning and reducing" U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (As Obama said in his West Point speech, the war must be balanced with other national programs, and the nation he most wants to rebuild is the United States.) However, the key words are beginning and gradual.
Both Gates and Mullen scoffed at Republicans' claims that just talking about a timetable for withdrawal—even if it wasn't much of a withdrawal—would embolden the Taliban or compel them to lie low until we leave.
The Taliban are already pretty emboldened, they said, to the point where it's hard to see how they could get more so. As for the prospect of their lying low for 18 months, Gates remarked, "That would be terrific news." It would give the U.S. troops and aid workers much freer rein to win hearts and minds, train the Afghan army, and develop the Afghan economy if they didn't have to stave off the Taliban at the same time.
Gates pointed out that the surge in Iraq lasted 14 months, from January 2007 until March 2008. President George W. Bush and his officials announced from the outset that it would be of limited duration. Yet that didn't affect the dynamic of its impact. Gates and Mullen called the Obama buildup an "extended surge," in that it will last 19 months, possibly longer.
Of course, the Iraq surge coincided with the Sunni Awakening, which occurred spontaneously. In Afghanistan, U.S. commanders are trying to jump-start a similar awakening among the less militant members of the Taliban. It's a huge gamble; but if it doesn't work, the whole campaign isn't likely to work, either, because neither the United States nor NATO has enough troops to pacify all the southern and eastern provinces, where the Taliban have their strongholds.
How will NATO help out? That question was also answered, to some extent, at today's hearings. All three witnesses expressed confidence that, at a meeting later this week, the NATO ministers will commit to sending an additional 5,000 troops, maybe as many as 7,000.
Compared with the extra 30,000 U.S. troops, this is small stuff, but it would mark a real diplomatic feat, in that just a week ago, all the countries' leaders said they were tapped out.
However, Gates also said that he hoped the extra NATO troops will be deployed in Afghanistan's northern and western provinces, where the Taliban don't pose as much of a threat. In other words, the most intense fighting will still be left largely to us.