The Cable

White House denies CNN report of 3 year timeline for Afghanistan withdrawal

President Obama will not announce a three-year time frame for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, despite a CNN report to the contrary.

"That's wrong. The time frame of three years is nowhere in the speech," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable. He added that spokesman Robert Gibbs's statement on this issue earlier Tuesday was accurate but did not elaborate.

Gibbs told CNN's John King this morning that "the president will discuss tonight the time frame in which he believes we can transition our forces out of Afghanistan."

CNN then reported that time frame will be three years, according to multiple administration officials.

This sparked a firestorm of reaction on Capitol Hill, with hawks and dovs alike reacting to the idea.

"I hope it's not true," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, who added that he supported Obama expected announcement of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan as "enough."

"I hope it's not an explicit deadline to get our troops out because that undermines the mission, but some mention of a time line or a goal is OK," Lieberman said.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-WI, said that he was "very happy" about the idea of "having a timeline or some sense that this is not open-ended."

He is simultaneously opposed to the basic idea of increasing troops there in the first place.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he expected Obama to announce "milestones" but not a hard timeline. 

Senior administration officials are set to brief reporters on the Afghanistan strategy momentarily.

The Cable

New aid chief lays out plans to fix USAID

As the entire development community was trying to gauge the impact of the ascension of Rajiv Shah to the top position at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the nominee himself gave the most detailed look yet into his intellectual identity as he gets ready to step into the fray.

In a long list of detailed answers to questions submitted in advance of his Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony Tuesday, Shah weighed in on a number of substantive issues while deferring to the ongoing reviews at both State and the NSC when it came to matters related to the structure of USAID and its relationship with the State Department.

Shah will report to directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew, he wrote in the answers, obtained by The Cable. But it's not yet determined if he will have control over the "F bureau" at State, 60 percent of which is staffed by USAID personnel, he said. That will be determined by State's ongoing Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and the NSC's Presidential Study Directive on Global Engagement (PSD-7).

Regardless, Shah wrote that he believes USAID needs the capacity to plan budgetary requirements and monitor and evaluate performance, a reference to the restoration of an intellectual brain trust inside the agency following the gutting of such capabilities under the Bush administration.

Insiders tell The Cable that the PSD will recommend that USAID once again have a policy-planning staff, but that actual control over funds will likely not be returned to the agency, remaining under the control of State, specifically in Lew's shop.

"It is critical that we rebuild all types of capacity at USAID, including policy expertise," Shah wrote to the committee. "I believe USAID must be able to inform policy decisions, develop strategies, and implement programs effectively and efficiently."

Shah said he believes the secretary of state should be the link to the Office of Management and Budget, with input from USAID. He did not comment on whether USAID should have a seat at the table at high-level meetings such as principals meetings, deputy meetings, and NSC meetings, deferring to the PSD and the QDDR.

Shah said he will cochair the QDDR and represent USAID in the PSD, if confirmed.

The PSD process is said to be well ahead of the QDDR in terms of progress. According to sources briefed on the status, the PSD will be near complete by the end of the year. The process was extended by a number of weeks to allow Shah time to get briefed up and then make his own contributions to the process, these sources said.

The QDDR, however, is not expected to be complete until summer or fall 2010. Interim results could be released early next year, but there is a sense that State is looking towards the formation of the fiscal 2012 budget rather than trying to focus on the fiscal 2011 budget, which is being developed now. Critics of that approach fear that State is too slow in forming its plans for reorganization, resulting in a risk that State will be relatively weaker than other government actors if battles over certain related issues can't wait until State gets the QDDR together.

At the start of Shah's confirmation hearing, committee Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, tried to pin down Shah on what he thought about how USAID should be linked to State, but Shah declined to weigh in.

"This is part of a larger struggle over the shape and direction of our country's global development efforts," Kerry said. "Our aid program is in need of a course correction."

Ranking Republican Richard Lugar, R-IN, asked Shah what could be done in the near term to fix USAID, which Lugar said has been suffering a long decline.

"I believe quite a lot can happen immediately," Shah said, stating that policy planning and other intellectual functions such as improving evaluation of programs can be improved sooner rather than later.

File photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images