WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon this week will try to convince the nation that the war in Afghanistan remains on track, despite a shake-up in military leadership.
Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, was expected to testify Tuesday before a Senate committee. It would be his first appearance on Capitol Hill since being picked to lead the war in Afghanistan following President Barack Obama’s firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal for criticizing the administration.
Lamenting what he called “a lot of obsession” about the July 2011 withdrawal date for U.S. troops, Obama on Sunday defended his war strategy and said the United States would assist the Afghans “for a long time to come.”
Asked about a five-year exit strategy endorsed by the Group of Eight major industrial democracies, Obama told reporters at the economic summit in Toronto, “I don’t have a crystal ball.”
The president added: “I think that right now the debate surrounding Afghanistan is presented as either we get up and leave immediately because there’s no chance at a positive outcome, or we stay basically indefinitely and do quote unquote whatever it takes for as long as it takes.” He repeated his view that beginning to pull out troops next year doesn’t mean the U.S. will “suddenly turn off the lights and let the door close behind us.”
Picking Petraeus is a signal that there won’t be a significant change in strategy, according to Obama and senior defense officials. But lawmakers say they’ll be watching carefully to see what other changes might be in store.
“This is a chance to start over completely,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Because the military’s relationship with its diplomatic counterparts is so important, “I’m very concerned if nothing changes on the civilian side,” Graham added, later calling the military-civilian relationship “dysfunctional.”
The public relations effort comes amid mixed reviews on U.S. success in Afghanistan. Obama is advancing a risky new war plan that relies on some 98,000 U.S. troops to prop up the Afghan government and prevent al-Qaida from returning.
On Sunday, CIA Director Leon Panetta said the U.S. has driven al-Qaida into hiding and undermined its leadership. At the same time, the U.S. is struggling to oust its primary sympathizer, the Taliban, from Afghanistan, the nation’s spymaster said Sunday.
“We’re seeing elements of progress, but this is going to be tough,” Panetta told ABC’s “This Week.”
Panetta said al-Qaida’s evolving attack strategy increasingly relies on operatives without any record of terrorism involvement or those already in the U.S. As for Osama bin Laden, Panetta said it’s been years since the U.S. had good intelligence about his whereabouts.
Panetta estimated there are fewer than 100 al-Qaida militants operating inside Afghanistan, with the rest hiding along Pakistan’s mountainous western border. He said U.S. drone strikes and other spy operations have helped to “take down” half of al-Qaida’s senior leaders.
“We are engaged in the most aggressive operations in the history of the CIA in that part of the world, and the result is that we are disrupting their leadership,” Panetta said.
At the same time, Panetta offered a less upbeat assessment of the U.S. fight against the Taliban, the anti-U.S. insurgency operating inside Afghanistan’s borders.
When asked whether the Taliban has grown stronger since Obama took office, Panetta said the Taliban was acting more violent and being more aggressive in “going after our troops,” including its use of roadside bombs.
There is progress, he said, even if it’s “slower than I think anyone anticipated.”