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WASHINGTON — From Capitol Hill to Kabul, the question about President Barack Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy was the same on Wednesday: How can the United States be all-in in Afghanistan while simultaneously preparing to get out?

In his speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point on Tuesday evening, Obama simultaneously declared that he will speed 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan over the next six months but also begin to withdraw U.S. forces from the embattled nation by July 2011.

That left many critics to interpret the president’s Afghan plan less as a troop buildup and more as an exit plan for the war there, and fueled questions about whether the White House is committed to the fight or already looking for a way out.

Obama pitched the July 2011 timeline for the start of a security handover to Afghan troops as proof that America does not have an “open-ended commitment” to a country where 849 American soldiers have lost their lives since the war begin eight years ago. No final withdrawal date has been set, and the pace of drawdowns will be dictated by the security situation in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.

“But it will be clear to the Afghan government — and, more importantly, to the Afghan people — that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country,” Obama said.

But analysts and lawmakers immediately questioned whether the surge-then-exit strategy sends a message of a lack of commitment in the region. Many wondered whether it would embolden Taliban insurgents to simply hunker down and wait for a U.S. withdrawal, as well as exacerbate longstanding fears in both Afghanistan and Pakistan that the United States will abandon the volatile region, as it did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

“A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies — in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the entire region — all of whom currently doubt whether America is committed to winning this war,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., declared during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday.

In his own blunt late-summer assessment of the faltering war effort, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, warned that Americans must gird themselves for a “long-term” fight that does not lend itself to quick fixes and that will require “patience and commitment” from political leaders.

He also wrote that a major obstacle to securing popular support in Afghanistan lies in persuading skeptical citizens that America is committed to protecting them from Taliban insurgents, rebuilding the country and bettering their lives. The report stated that U.S. actions must “signal unwavering commitment” to the future security of the country.

McChrystal’s support

On Wednesday, McChrystal expressed full support for a July 2011 date to begin withdrawals.

“The 18-month timeline, however as it will play out, is not an absolute,” McChrystal said. “It’s not, ‘In 18 months, everybody leaves.’ The president has expressed on numerous occasions a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan and that includes all manner of assistance. So the concept is as national security rises, then the need for coalition military assistance maneuver forces goes down.”

Still, on Capitol Hill Wednesday, some Republican lawmakers pressed Defense Secretary Robert Gates, labeling the Obama plan as a cut-and-run tactic.

“I understand why he (Obama) would want the American people to know we’re not going to be there forever, but this is a critically important event,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I think that the success of this operation depends on will and resolve and I just don’t want the July 2011 statement to be seen by our enemy, which is not one of the audiences you mentioned but I think are listening, that we have somehow locked ourselves into leaving.”

Gates promised a “hard look” at security and progress training the Afghan National Army in December 2010 to determine if the July 2011 withdrawal is still realistic.

Ashraf Haidari, political counselor and acting defense attaché at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, on Wednesday said flatly that 18 months is “not enough” time to adequately train the Afghan security forces, which he said are mostly illiterate and lack vital experience and equipment.

“If we provide these as fast as possible, and training and equipment, they will be far ahead [from] where they are today, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be fully operational and function and ready to fight enemies,” Haidari said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “The question is, really, whether we will be where we need to be. If not, then of course it’s going to be concerning to all of us, that we don’t want to prematurely disengage from Afghanistan.”

Border concerns

Meanwhile, Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said Pakistani leaders he’s recently spoken with have been anxious that an Afghanistan surge could push al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents deeper across their border.

Pakistani leaders have long been divided over how best to deal with the insurgency next door in Afghanistan, at times supporting the Taliban as a proxy force to keep arch-rival India from meddling in the area. That policy of trying to buy off the extremists has lately backfired as the insurgents have staged increasingly bold strikes against the Pakistani government.

Obama said part of the surge plan includes a new focus on Pakistan, one “built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect and mutual trust.” The president promised that “America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent.”

He pointedly omitted any mention of plans to step up covert U.S. operations inside Pakistan targeting Taliban and al-Qaida leaders taking refuge in the mountainous border region.

Katulis said America’s public approach to Pakistan is still largely a “we send them money and they do what we tell them” attitude, one that the Obama administration has tried unsuccessfully to alter. Fears of a half-hearted U.S. effort and a desire to pull out of the region could exacerbate that tension.

Not a waiting game?

White House officials downplayed the idea that setting a date to begin to withdraw from Afghanistan signals any lack of commitment in the region. Obama and his Cabinet officials emphasized in their public remarks that any drawdown decisions will be based on the ability of Afghan forces to assume the lead in security operations.

“If the Taliban thinks they can wait us out, I think that they’re misjudging the president’s approach,” a senior administration official said.

On Wednesday, Gates told members of the Senate that the announcement of a date to begin the withdrawal targets two distinct audiences: the Afghan government, “who must accept responsibility in terms of their own governance,” and the American public, “to let them know this isn’t going to go on for another 10 years.”

A Gallup poll released last month showed that 52 percent of U.S. citizens surveyed believe the war in Afghanistan has not been worth the cost in money or lives, and as many people supported drawing down the number of troops deployed there (45 percent) as supported adding more troops (46 percent).

Obama dismissed criticisms of the July 2011 target in his Tuesday speech, noting that “the absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government.”

In his Afghanistan assessment, McChrystal said the ranks of the Afghan National Army need to nearly double to 134,000 by fall 2010, and the long-term goal for the combined national army and police force needs to top 400,000. Obama’s surge plan calls for about 5,000 trainers among the troops, to help accelerate that timeline.

Others have called for a much larger number of Afghanistan security forces above the 400,000 target. But senior administration officials dismissed those calls, too, calling that goal something they can reasonable aim for in the next five years.

Can’t rush success

Yet, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who last month warned lawmakers against a quick, catch-all solution for Afghanistan, said that even with more trainers and funding, the Afghan National Army is limited in how fast it can grow. Logistics, equipment and intelligence capabilities take years to develop, even under ideal circumstances, he noted.

“In the end, success is not something you can rush,” he said.

Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, who was a member of a team of advisers to McChrystal last summer, said expecting the surge to lead to immediate improvements may be overly optimistic.

“We simply must not go in with the expectation that nine months after the beginning of this increase of forces into Afghanistan we will have a result as decisive as the result we had in Iraq,” she said.

The president’s plans call for the 30,000 additional U.S. troops to be in place in Afghanistan by next summer, although administration officials concede that may be an ambitious target. But Kagan said she doubts the flow of new troops into Afghanistan would be as swift as the surge of extra troops into Iraq two years ago, and therefore “decisive” operations against insurgents would not come as quickly.

Obama also received criticism for providing fewer than the 40,000 troops originally requested by McChrystal, but NATO forces are expected to announce their own troop surge later this week. Brig. Gen. John Nicholson Jr., director of the Defense Department’s Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination cell, said he anticipates another 5,000 to 7,000 in troop commitments from international partners, enough to push the total coalition troop total over 140,000.

Stars and Stripes reporters Dianna Cahn and Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

This is an update of a story posted December 1. See the earlier version here.

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