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WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan downplayed the president’s July 2011 goal to begin withdrawing troops and said he wouldn’t rule out delaying that timeline or even adding more troops to the new 100,000 end strength planned for the country.

“I don’t view July 2011 as a deadline,” Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal said in testimony Tuesday before members of the House Armed Services Committee. “At that time, we’ll evaluate the time and scope of a possible drawdown,” a decision he called the “natural evolution” of the military mission.

Both McChrystal, who also leads the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and Karl Eikenberry, leader of U.S. civilian efforts there, told lawmakers they support President Barack Obama’s plan to send about 30,000 more troops into the country to push back the resurgent Taliban and to speed up the training for the fledgling Afghan security forces.

But lawmakers remained divided, with several Democrats skeptical that more troops can solve political corruption there and Republicans convinced the summer 2011 drawdown represents an abandoning of the mission.

“If as a nation we are saying that this is a war of necessity, how can we say we’ll withdraw troops in 18 months even if the mission isn’t complete?” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va.

Last week in an address to the nation, Obama billed the summer 2011 mark as a way to pressure the Afghan government into assuming more responsibility for security, while still promising long-term assistance in stabilizing the region.

McChrystal said he did not recommend the July 2011 withdrawal date, but he’s confident both the American and Afghan public will see significant military progress before then.

He also said that the goal will not allow Taliban and al-Qaida leaders to lie in wait for U.S. forces to leave.

“If they wait, we’ll build up a better way of life for the Afghan population,” he said. “In addition, the Afghan security force will continue to build up, leaving them much less vulnerable to future attacks.”

However, McChrystal said he would not allow political considerations to influence his evaluation of progress over the next 18 months, and if additional forces are needed because of an increase in violence “then of course I would request it.”

Those comments drew criticism from Democrats who said insurgent havens in Pakistan and continued failings of President Hamid Karzai’s government mean no increase in foreign troops can fix the situation.

“We’ve seen greater numbers of American casualties … but no improvement in the security situation,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. “In my opinion, we’ve reached a security plateau.”


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