Afghanistan timetable raises questions

President Obama’s timetable for rapidly expanding and then shrinking U.S. force levels in Afghanistan, a central feature of his new war strategy, raised questions from critics and supporters alike Wednesday, and left top administration officials struggling to explain the plan.

The war plan presented by the president Tuesday night, which fixes the beginning of troop reductions in July 2011 but does not set an end, was the subject of widespread confusion as lawmakers, diplomats and others debated whether it meant that American forces were headed for a hasty exit or a protracted military engagement.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was sent by Obama to Brussels to explain the policy to European officials. When he arrived Wednesday, he was asked whether the new policy meant that the U.S. military was on the way out.

“Europeans sought clarification on this key point because of confusion over some initial press reports,” said Holbrooke, who explained that the drawdown would be based on conditions in Afghanistan, a point Obama made during his speech.

The first American reviews of the plan showed how a policy carefully designed to appeal to differing points of view nonetheless found doubters in virtually all camps.

In Washington, Republicans said it was contradictory to add 30,000 U.S. troops by mid-2010 and begin withdrawing them a year later.

“That gives the wrong impression to our friends; it’s the wrong impression to give our enemies,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Democrats worried that Obama’s emphasis on a “conditions-based” withdrawal set up the possibility of an enduring involvement.

“I need to be convinced that . . . we are not making an open-ended commitment and that there is a sensible way to pay for the war,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

Obama outlined the timetable for his Afghanistan troop buildup during an address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Whipsawed by political pressures, Obama has been eager to show war-weary Americans that he intends to end the eight-year mission, while signaling allies and the enemy that he intends to remain long enough to achieve U.S. goals.

“You can call it contradiction. You can call it challenge,” Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a televised interview. “The United States, according to the president, has vital national interests there and the United States is going to add 30,000 troops. But in 18 months we’re going to start taking those troops out.”

Obama and other administration officials have chosen their words carefully in arguing that their approach will help pressure Afghan President Hamid Karzai to build up his security forces and improve the government, winning the support of ordinary Afghans away from Taliban-led insurgents.

Administration officials have also struggled to explain the policy. David Axelrod, a senior White House advisor, said Tuesday: “I’m not putting . . . an end, you know, a timetable. But . . . the president made clear, this is an action that has an end to it.”

Gates, under questioning by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, at Wednesday’s hearing, explained that the troop drawdown would begin in July 2011, no matter the situation in Afghanistan.

When pressed by McCain, however, Gates portrayed the July 2011 date as less definite, asserting that the president may change his plans as needed.

“The president has indicated that we will have a thorough review of how we’re doing in December of 2010, and I think we will be in a position then to evaluate whether or not we can begin that transition in July,” Gates said.

Later, Gates conceded that it is possible for Obama to alter the July 2011 date for beginning withdrawals, if conditions require.

“I think the president, as commander in chief, always has the option to adjust his decisions,” Gates told Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

The complicated message was interpreted in different ways by different audiences. For instance, Clinton testified that though the decision to withdraw was not irrevocable, the administration had no interest in occupying the country.

In a broadcast interview later, Graham focused on the first part of her answer: “Secretary of State Clinton said we’re not locked into withdrawing, which is music to my ears and I think will be bad news for the enemy. I hope that’s the final answer.”

Administration officials say -- and some outside analysts agree -- that they will know by mid-2011 whether the “extended surge” strategy has begun to reverse the Taliban’s gains. But critics have argued against waging war by a time clock because it enables the insurgents to simply wait out the foreign troops’ departure.

The plan may have political advantages, allowing Obama to approach the start of his expected 2012 reelection campaign by arguing that the military mission in Afghanistan is on the downslope, even though few troops will have returned home by then.

M. Ashraf Haidari, political counselor at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, praised the plan for its signs of commitment, saying the administration will not withdraw troops if they are needed in the fight.

Haidari said he does not expect the United States to “prematurely disengage from Afghanistan . . . that would be a recipe for disaster.”

Obama is seeking wider international support for the stepped-up mission that he called in his speech “a test of the common security of the world.”

In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday that allies in the war effort “will send at least 5,000 more soldiers and probably more” to Afghanistan next year.

“This is not a U.S. mission alone. America’s allies in NATO have shared the risks, costs and burdens of this mission from the beginning,” said Rasmussen, who welcomed Obama’s announcement of a troop increase as “proof of his resolve.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the Obama speech courageous, but said a decision to send more troops to Afghanistan required further review.

In Germany, officials said they were prepared to conduct more police training in Afghanistan, but would not determine whether to send more troops until a strategy review early next year.

In the United States, several members of Congress expressed particular concern at the possibility that the Obama plan would result in greater militancy in the region.

“We cannot support your decision to prolong and expand a risky and unsustainable strategy in the region,” wrote Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and two House members in a letter to Obama. “There is a serious danger that the ongoing, large-scale U.S. military presence will continue to provoke greater militancy in the region and further destabilize both Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan.”

Times staff writer Henry Chu in Copenhagen contributed to this report.