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WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and security experts agree that Afghanistan will dominate the military’s focus over the next few years, and will require a rethinking of troop deployments, mission strategy and basic goals for success there.

But whether that means an accelerated drawdown from Iraq or a slow-but-steady approach to getting more troops into Afghanistan still depends on who’s talking.

On Thursday, the House Armed Services Committee invited a panel of military analysts to discuss the way forward for U.S. interests in both countries. Anthony Cordesman, chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told lawmakers that if reinforcements aren’t sent to Afghanistan quickly "there isn’t going to be a mid- or long-term plan to worry about."

Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations disagreed. Fighting between the Taliban and U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan is at an acceptable stalemate, he said, and troops cannot be relocated there from Iraq quickly without jeopardizing security gains in Baghdad.

Committee members said that’s the dilemma facing President Barack Obama. The White House is currently reviewing strategy to help shape the focus of future missions.

Last month, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told lawmakers he hoped to send two combat brigades into Afghanistan by this spring. But defense officials won’t say whether those plans have been delayed or scuttled by the White House review.

Committee chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said the goal is to find the right balance between the two, but added that former President George W. Bush did not pay "sufficient attention" to Afghanistan, in part leading to the deteriorating situation there.

But ranking Committee member Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., who traveled to Iraq last weekend, countered by saying a rapid withdrawal of forces from that country could allow al-Qaida to again make it "the central front on the war on terror."

A new study from the Government Accountability Office released Thursday said a clear, comprehensive withdrawal strategy for Iraq and troop build-up strategy for Afghanistan are needed to ensure success in both countries.

The breakdown and handover of large bases in Iraq, such as Balad Air Base, could take up to two years, according to the GAO. That could push back Obama’s stated campaign plans of withdrawing all U.S. forces from Iraq by summer 2010.


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