The Cable

Battle lines set for new Afghanistan debate

Leading lawmakers on both sides kicked off the coming debate over the Obama administration's plans to speed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a partisan fight over how to extract the U.S. from its longest war with a measure of honor and success.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Obama administration is debating multiple new troop drawdown plans that would govern the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the surge forces is completed this September. According to the report, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is supporting a plan that would remove another 10,000 troops by the end of 2012 and an additional 20,000 troops by June of next year.

Vice President Joe Biden is said to support a plan for an even more precipitous withdrawal. Gen. John Allen, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, reportedly supports keeping more troops there longer than either Donilon or Biden would like.

A number of leading Republican senators told The Cable that they oppose the new, faster Afghanistan troop withdrawal plans under discussion in the Times report, which they see as a trial balloon floated by the White House to frame the coming discussion.

"I hope it's a balloon that busts," said Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Graham laid out the basic argument against the speedier withdrawal: that it is opposed by leading U.S. military officials, is based on the White House's political considerations, and risks sacrificing hard-fought security gains.

"The problem with this administration is that every time the generals give them good advice, they've got to change it," said Graham. "Why is General Allen wrong? If I gotta pick between Joe Biden and General Allen, I'm picking General Allen.... The last thing we want is a bunch of politicians who have been wrong about everything controlling the war."

He also acknowledged that not all Republicans agree with him and even the GOP presidential candidates are becoming skittish on keeping the military committed in Afghanistan. Newt Gingrich said this week that the mission there might not be "doable."

"On the Republican side, we've had one or two folks talking about changing General Allen's withdrawal plan. They don't know what they're talking about. It would be a nightmare for this country for Afghanistan to go poorly," said Graham. "I hope the Republican nominee for president will say something very simple. ‘I know we're war weary. We're going to withdraw. We're going to transition. But we're going to do it based on what the general says.'"

Allen is coming to Washington next week and will testify on Capitol Hill. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable in an interview that Republicans will press Allen to admit the dangers of speeding up the withdrawal plan.

"I'll ask ‘is the risk greater' and he'll say ‘the risk is greater because of these decisions,'" McCain predicted. The Arizona senator described the new, speedier withdrawal option as the administration "continuing the president's stated withdrawals over the objections of his military advisors who he has appointed, sending the message to the region that we are leaving and you have to make accommodations for us not being in the neighborhood, which is a strategy for failure."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) wholly supports the administration removing more troops from Afghanistan at a steady pace, although he acknowledges that some generals disagree.

"After the 30,000 troops are removed by the end of September, the president said a couple months ago that there will be further reductions continuing at a ‘steady pace.' I favored that very much. A number of top uniformed leaders did not," said Levin.

He said the uniformed leadership favored halting the withdrawal of U.S. troops after the 30,000 surge troops leave. That would leave the number of U.S. troops at about 68,000 until as late as 2014, when they would then reduce steeply.

"I have felt the president's ‘steady pace' approach was the right approach. We ought to continue that approach. That was right in terms of success of the mission," said Levin.

He also said that the recent incidents in Afghanistan, including the accidental burning of Qurans and last weekend's alleged murder of 16 Afghan civilians, reinforce the need to continue withdrawing, an argument the president himself made this week.

The White House seems determined to continue the pace of withdrawals into next year despite the criticism coming from Republicans. GOP leaders want the administration to know they will be bringing up Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal plans early and often throughout this election season.

"If you start bleeding [General Allen], you leave everybody left behind in a force protection nightmare and our ability to withdraw with honor and security will be forfeited," said Graham. "And when it goes bad, [the White House] will be reminded of who created it. I promise you that."

UPDATE: National Security Council Spokesman  Tommy Vietor denied the Times report. Here's his statement to The Cable:

The White House is not currently reviewing options for further troop withdrawals and no decisions have been made.  As the President has said, we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer. After that initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead.

The President will make decisions on further drawdowns at the appropriate time, based on our interests and in consultation with our Allies and Afghan partners. We look forward to meeting in Chicago with NATO leaders to define the next phase of transition.

There are no options, and Tom Donilon isn't pushing any specific option or policy proposal.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Cable

Exclusive: Taliban Gitmo deal is swap for a Westerner

The pending deal to move senior Taliban figures from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar is part of a trade for the return of a Western prisoner, according to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

The Obama administration's plan to move five top Taliban officials to live under house arrest in Qatar has been extensively reported but never openly discussed by administration officials. And until Feinstein confirmed it to The Cable, the fact that the crux of the deal is a swap for a Westerner had never been publicly disclosed.

"That's the framework of the exchange. But it's presented as a confidence-building measure," Feinstein said. "We are giving up people who killed a lot of people, people who were head of major efforts of the Taliban."

Feinstein said the deal involved the trade of one Westerner for the five Taliban leaders. She also confirmed the name of the Westerner in question, but The Cable has agreed to withhold that name at the request of U.S. officials out of concern for his safety.

Under the deal, the United States would reportedly place the Taliban officials under the responsibility of the Qatari government, where they would ostensibly remain under some degree of supervision and imprisonment. According to reports, the prisoners being considered for transfer include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister; Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan; and former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund.

But Feinstein said she opposes it.

"These are major Taliban figures, they are not minor people. And they will not be in the same kind of custody, maximum-security custody. Forget that it won't be Guantánamo, just maximum-security custody," she said. "And in my view, there's no way of knowing what they may do and what kind of propaganda they may breed."

Afghan officials have spoken about the deal as a step toward peace talks meant to end the decade-long Afghanistan war, but U.S. lawmakers suspect the released Taliban could eventually end up returning to the fight.

Feinstein said the timing of the deal, with the Taliban still actively engaged against Western forces on the battlefield, was particularly problematic. "To do this as just a confidence-building measure without any acceptance by the Taliban of any rules or agreements or anything else, and at a time when the Taliban are still carrying out raids, planting IEDS, still killing people.... I think if you're able to achieve with the Taliban an agreement then it wouldn't be as horrible as it is," Feinstein said.

The administration has sought hard to preserve the secrecy around the prisoner trade, and administration officials won't confirm any of the details publicly.

Last week, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden denied that a deal had been struck, saying, "The United States has not decided to transfer any Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay" after reports surfaced that the Taliban leaders in question had agreed to be transferred.

"We are not in a position to discuss ongoing deliberations or individual detainees, but our goal of closing Guantánamo is well established and widely understood," she said. "In general, any decision to transfer a detainee from Guantánamo would be undertaken in accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with the Congress."

On Jan. 31, top administration officials briefed eight senators on the deal, including Feinstein. The other senators invited to that classified briefing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Republican Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Senate Armed Services chiefs Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).

In a brief interview Tuesday, Levin declined to comment in any way on the trade. But he did say that he was opposed to any Taliban transfers unless it was part of a peace process.

"I believe that before there's a transfer of anybody that there should be some progress in the negotiations and discussions. That should be used as a way of promoting progress in the discussions with the Taliban, rather than doing that before those discussions have any evidence of success," he said.

McCain, in his own brief Tuesday interview with The Cable, said that a prisoner swap wasn't necessarily a bad idea in principle. But he poured cold water on the notion of linking any such swap to peace talks with the Taliban.

"If it's intended to be a ‘confidence-building measure,' that is an extreme measure. If it's a swap, it's worthy of consideration of Congress, if that is the premise of it," said McCain, a former prisoner himself. "But they're doing it as a ‘confidence-building measure.' That's not confidence building."

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images