President Barack Obama’s decision to remove 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and another 23,000 by September 2012 is drawing mixed reviews in Washington -- most notably from his top military officers.
The president’s highest ranking military advisor and commanding general in Afghanistan both told members of Congress his decision was "more aggressive" a drawdown than they would have preferred.
Speaking to a hastily convened House Armed Services Committee hearing on Afghanistan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said that although the president has his support, his "decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept."
Hours later in a Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to be the next director of the CIA, Gen. David Petraeus, the current commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, nearly echoed Adm. Mullen word for word. "The ultimate decision was a more aggressive formulation than what we had recommended," Petraeus said.
Gen. Petraeus said that over the past month he had a series of meetings with the president during which he recommended a number of different options for reducing the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, each with its own risk assessments.
Petraeus conceded that no general ever has all the troops and resources he wants, but when the president makes a decision "it is the responsibility of the military to salute smartly."
Political figures in Washington more direct in their criticism.
Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said the President's decision "could jeopardize the hard-won gains our troops and allies have made over the past 18 months and potentially the safety of the remaining forces." He added the announcement sends a signal to the enemy "who will now believe they can wait out the departure of U.S. forces and return to their strongholds."
The White House also drew criticism from Democrats who thought the drawdown plans weren't substantial enough."What are those 70,000 [remaining] troops going to do? I thought since we have trained all these Afghans, we turn it over to them," Boxer said.
There are now a record high 290,000 men serving in the Afghan National Security Forces, but their effectiveness has been a major source of frustration for military trainers.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., told reporters he is "profoundly disappointed the president and his top military advisors have decided to stay the course." Garamendi said he believes the U.S. has inserted itself into a "five-way civil war" between various tribal factions with a long history of violence. "We will ultimately not succeed," he declared.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fought for the president in a Senate Foreign Relations hearing on Afghanistan Thursday, saying the enemy is vulnerable. "The bottom line, as the president said, is that we have broken the Taliban's momentum. So we do begin this drawdown from a position of strength."
Neither Petraeus nor Adm. Mullen would discuss the specific recommendations they offered to the president. That frustrated some members and caused Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., to lash out, blasting Adm. Mullen for offering his personal views on gays serving in the military, but not speaking to the issue of how many troops he believes should serve in Afghanistan.
"It just astounds me that when we had "don't ask don't tell," you were willing to come before a committee unsolicited and say, "I'm willing to state my personal opinion, and this is what I think it should be," but yet when we're talking about potential risk to the troops that this committee has to make, which is our number one concern, that you're not willing to say what those individual commanders were willing to say or -- or your personal recommendations," Forbes said.
Forbes was referencing Mullen's now infamous statement to Congress that repealing the law that bans homosexuals from serving openly in the military is "the right thing to do."
President Obama says his plan is to have most U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, at which point most security operations will have been handed to the Afghan government and its armed forces. But Pentagon officials acknowledge that some residual American force, and significant monetary assistance, will like remain beyond that point.
With 100,000 U.S. troops now in the country, the Afghan war has claimed the lives of just over 1600 Americans and is costing the taxpayers roughly $10 billion a month.