Congressional hearings are often such a slog to sit through. Today's double-header—one in the Senate, another in the House, both featuring President Barack Obama's top aides testifying on his Afghanistan war policy—was no exception.
It's a tossup which moments marked the low point. Was it when three House members in a row asked the same question (which was thoroughly answered the first time), suggesting that they hadn't been listening or lacked the imagination to stray from their scripts? Or was it when two senators took the historic occasion to ask Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about how the competition for a new tanker-aircraft might impinge on the fortunes of the Boeing Co.
Still, the six hours of hearings—which tested the stamina of not just Gates but also Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—did clarify two bits of confusion from Obama's Tuesday night speech at West Point.
First, what did the president mean when he announced that the 30,000 extra troops he's sending to Afghanistan—some of whom won't arrive until the summer of 2010—will begin to come home in July 2011? Second, how many more troops will the NATO allies send, and how much fighting will they do?
The answer to the first question is that 2011 will probably mark neither a deadline nor more than a token withdrawal. The answers to the second question are: not many and not much.
At today's hearings, starting with Sen. John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate armed services committee, and continuing throughout the day, lawmakers expressed worry—in some cases, outrage—that declaring a timetable for withdrawal would only demoralize the Afghans and encourage the Taliban to "lie low" until we leave, then come out and pounce.
Gates and Mullen repeated time and again that this wasn't going to happen. First, they said, the key word in Obama's speech was that U.S. troops would begin to turn over the lead role in the fight to Afghan security forces. The pace of this process, and the end point of the withdrawal, will be determined by "conditions on the ground."
Senior officials, who briefed reporters before and after Tuesday's speech, made this same point. But Gates and Mullen took it further. "An exit strategy, goodbye … That's not going to happen," Mullen assured the House foreign affairs committee. "It's a transfer and transition policy," not a pullout.
In the Senate hearing, Gates stressed, "We're not just going to throw these guys in the swimming pool and walk away." The evaluation will be made "district by district, province by province."
And, he continued, the "transition" will begin in "the most uncontested provinces"—that is, in an area that is not under Taliban threat. Even there, the U.S. soldiers or Marines won't simply leave; they'll back away and continue to "oversee" how the Afghan forces are handling the situation by themselves.