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Senators grill Petraeus on new Afghanistan strategy

Top concerns are troop levels and yardsticks for success

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“We know that [a larger force] was a vital element to our success in Iraq, and to dribble out these decisions, I think, can create the impression of incrementalism,” Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona told Petraeus and other administration officials at Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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Senator McCain makes a good point but should temper his criticism, says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“The word ‘incremental’ is a bit too harsh, but [McCain’s] overall points, especially about the Afghan forces, are still generally correct,” he says. “Then again, so is the general thrust of Obama’s policies – even if the goals aren’t yet ambitious enough.”

Obama’s strategy may be vague about the target size of the Afghan army as American officials negotiate for more resources from allies this week in Europe, some analysts say.

A fast troop buildup

A contingent of about 70,000 US and NATO forces is already on the ground in Afghanistan. With fresh US forces now arriving and 21,000 more soon to come, logistical challenges loom large. The US and its allies will need to build up bases and airstrips to support them.

Indeed, the US runs the risk of sending too large a force too fast, says Seth Jones, a political scientist at the RAND Corp. Besides, he says, the size of the Afghan military or the buildup of American forces is not necessarily the most important issue right now. Instead, the US must think about what incentives it will use to co-opt militants and turn them against the Taliban.

“That is a much bigger issue,” he says. The president’s Afghanistan-Pakistan plan “is not specific on how to do that.... There is a very broad statement, but it is pretty vague on how to do it and when.”

Strategy aside, concern exists in and outside the military that the US and its allies still don’t have an objective way of measuring success. Top military officials testified recently that the information in Afghanistan is far too “anecdotal” to be used effectively.

Lawmakers Wednesday echoed the concern.

“How will we assess whether the new strategy is working? How will we know if we’re winning?” asked Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine.

The Defense Department is working on it, answered Michele Flournoy, the Pentagon’s top policy official.

“I can promise you we will in a very short amount of time be able to come back and talk to you in detail about metrics,” she said.

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