Senate committee focuses on DoD budget, war in Afghanistan 


            The Senate Armed Services Committee’s first hearing on the Defense Department’s request for $708 billion in base budget and to pay for overseas contingency operations most often focused on military operations in Afghanistan.

            Testifying Feb. 2, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “Right now the Taliban believe they are winning.”

            In 18 months when 30,000 additional American forces and 7,000 to 10,000 NATO forces are in place, “they will know they are not.”

            He called the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, “the epicenter of terrorism.” 

            Adding, “The outcome of today’s conflicts will shape the security environment for decades. This is no mission of mercy. This is from where we were attacked.”

            Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., committee chairman, said setting a July 2011 date to begin reducing the number of the American forces in Afghanistan has “energized Afghan leaders” to step up their recruiting efforts for the nation’s security forces.  By reaching out to tribal leaders, the number of recruits increased 2,000 in November to 11,000 in January.

            “I remain very concerned that we will not meet” the goal of having 400,000 Afghans in the security forces by 2013, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking member, said. He added, “There is great uncertainty [among Pakistan leaders] that we are going to stay” past July 2011.

            Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the 2011 date is controversial, but it does not mean it is a terminal date of withdrawal.  The situation on the ground in Afghanistan will also be reviewed at the end of 2010, Mullen said.

            “I think there is definitely a deficit of trust with Pakistan” in the United States long-term commitment to the region that can only “be rebuilt over time, effort and action,” Gates said. 

            He added that the United States has to demonstrate to both countries that the commitment is going to be decades-long and not solely confined to military operations.

            A key part of the Afghan strategy is to have American and NATO troops training security forces and after that, partnering and mentoring them.  The goal is to have Afghan units that will eventually take the lead in operations.

            Levin said so far only 37 percent of the required number of trainers is in place. NATO has sent about 200 soldiers to provide basic training for the Afghans. The alliance was to provide 2,000. That is “simply inexcusable.”

            Mullen said his NATO counterparts “all agree it is unacceptable,” and he expects the number of trainers to increase as the alliance continues to add forces to Afghanistan.

            How progress will be measured in Afghanistan concerned Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Nebr.

            Gates said that benchmarks in Afghanistan include monitoring recruiting goals, cutting attrition rates, growing the number of units fielded and forces trained.

            The largest security problem remains roadside bombs and suicide bombers the committee was told.

            Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) remain “the worst killer and maimer of our troops,” Mullen said.  He added that the budget request includes funds for 10,000 more Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, and 6,600 of them are the all terrain vehicle model.

            Gates said there are about 500 to 700 ATV models in Afghanistan and about 500 per month will be added as full production moves ahead.

            In addition, Gates said the department is working to provide “an array of equipment” at the battalion level to counter IEDs for varying missions.

            Mullen said the Afghans, NATO and the American forces also have stepped up efforts to cut off the smuggling of certain types of fertilizer that can be used to build explosives. 

            Turning to Afghan efforts to reintegrate Taliban fighters, Mullen said they are “bringing them into the fold” but “there is no view it is a panacea.” He said reconciliation efforts between senior Taliban leaders and the Afghan government also are “at the beginning part of the process.”

            Levin noted that the Quadrennial Defense Review, released at the same time as the budget, “supports the current fight.”

            Gates agreed and said the review builds on the reform efforts of the FY 2010 budget that included the cancellation of the ground combat vehicle part of the Future Combat Systems. ”Wars we fight are rarely wars we plan.”

            The day before, he said in releasing the budget requests and QDR, “We have, in a sober and clear-eyed way, assessed risk, set priorities, made tradeoffs and identified requirements based on plausible, real-world threats, scenarios and potential adversaries.”

            The budget calls for 1.8 percent growth after inflation, and 1 percent real growth over the next four years.