The Cable

Republicans skip Benghazi hearing; complain about lack of information on Benghazi

This week, a number of Republican senators have strongly criticized the administration for failing to properly explain the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Some of those senators failed to show up for a briefing on the attack Wednesday.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has been the leading congressional critic of the administration's handling of the Benghazi attack and what he sees as the administration's lack of candor with Congress on the matter. On Wednesday, he pledged to block the potential nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton due to Rice's statements on the attack. That drew a sharp rebuke from President Barack Obama at Wednesday's press conference.

But although McCain had time to speak on the Senate floor and on television about the lack of information provided to Congress about the attack, he didn't attend the classified briefing for senators Wednesday given to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, of which he is a member.

Committee ranking Republican Susan Collins (R-ME) called out McCain for skipping the briefing and said his call for a special committee to investigate the Benghazi attack was not necessary because the Homeland Security committee could handle it.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), "who was there at briefing, and Senator McCain, who was not, are members of our committee, and I know they would play very important roles," Collins told Politico.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), another Homeland Security committee member who was on television complaining about the lack of Benghazi information, also did not show up for the Wednesday hearing. Paul did a CNN interview from the Capitol building Wednesday in which said he had questions about the anti-Islam video, the lack of Marines in Libya, and diplomatic security. At one point he says, "I don't know enough of the details."

The closed and classified briefing included representatives from the State Department, the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the FBI, an administration official said. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a classified hearing on Benghazi on Tuesday and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will hold one Thursday, but McCain and Paul are not members of either of those committees.

"If you want answers, a good first step is to show up and ask a question," an administration official told The Cable. "That's what a senator does."

UPDATE: According to his spokesman Brian Rogers, "Senator McCain was absent from the hearing due to a scheduling error."

UPDATE #2: Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley tells The Cable: "Sen. Paul didn't need to attend yet another Administration press conference disguised as a classified briefing to know there should have been Marines defending our personnel in Libya, to hear the Administration make the same excuses in private they will make in public. Sen. Paul is focused on demanding answers, demanding those who made these fatal mistake be fired, and fixing the mess this Administration has made. All of that needs to be done in public, for Americans to see and hear."

The Cable

Next Afghanistan commander supports troops there past 2014

The next commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is prepared to testify that he wants to see a robust U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, as U.S. and Afghan negotiators began formal work on that troop presence Thursday in Kabul.

Gen. Joe Dunford will be the sole nominee appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning. President Barack Obama has chosen Dunford to succeed Gen. John Allen to lead the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Allen, who was nominated to be the next Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), will not testify today because he is under investigation for engaging in a potentially inappropriate e-mail relationship with Tampa socialite (and "honorary consul" of South Korea) Jill Kelley.

According to his written answers to questions posed in advance by senators, obtained by The Cable, Dunford is ready to tell Congress that he supports U.S. troops staying in Afghanistan for a host of missions in 2015 and beyond, which matches the Obama administration's plans, despite some high-level administration statements to the contrary.

"In my view our overall objective in Afghanistan after 2014 will be to sustain our hard-won security gains after 2014 so that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists," Dunford wrote to the senators. "To accomplish this objective, the primary missions of the U.S. military in Afghanistan should be to (1) train, advise, and assist the ANSF; (2) provide support to civilian agencies, and (3) conduct counter-terrorism operations.  This mission set will include force protection for our brave young men and women and, as available, the provision of in extremis support for our Afghan forces."

During his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Vice President Joe Biden said that U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

"[Ryan] and the governor say it's based on conditions, which means ‘it depends.' It does not depend for us. It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security," Biden said. "We are leaving in 2014. Period."

Only days later, State Department officials explained that the U.S. and Afghan governments were preparing to start negotiations on a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would establish the size and role of the U.S. troop mission in 2015. The BSA is a follow-up agreement based on the Strategic Partnership Agreement Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed in May, which promised an ongoing U.S. commitment to Afghanistan through 2024.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Oct. 3 that James Warlick, the deputy to Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman, will be the lead U.S. negotiator, while Karzai's Ambassador to Washington Eklil Hakimi leads the negotiations for the Afghan side. Those negotiations began Thursday must be completed within one year.

"The Strategic Partnership Agreement negotiated last spring included the provisions for: continued U.S. access to, and use of, Afghan facilities for the purposes of countering terrorism; continuing to train the Afghan National Security Forces; and other mutually agreed activities to advance shared security interests," Dunford wrote to the senators. "The BSA should provide a foundation for enduring defense cooperation between our two countries. The key issues that need to be addressed in the conclusion of the BSA should include the nature and scope of the future presence and operational authorities of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; access to and use of Afghan facilities by U.S. forces beyond 2014; and, securing adequate status protections for U.S. Department of Defense military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan."

Dunford also wrote that he believes that the surge of U.S. forces to Afghanistan was a success and that the withdrawal of those surge forces by Obama this year was appropriate. His overall take on the Afghanistan war is that the trend lines are positive and that the insurgency is weakened.

"I support the President's decision and the reasoning behind that decision to recover 33,000 U.S. surge forces by October 2012. The purpose of the surge was to reverse the Taliban's momentum and increase the size and capability of the ANSF. The surge accomplished these objectives and created the conditions to initiate the process of Transition," he wrote.

"Although the insurgency remains resilient and determined, Coalition and ANSF operations have degraded insurgent capabilities and freedom of movement in much of the country. The insurgency failed to meet its established goals for the 2012 fighting season and enemy initiated attacks have largely been driven out of key population centers, a central aim of the Campaign.  Additionally, security conditions remain relatively stable in areas that have transitioned and, on average, show a decrease in violence."

Dunford wrote that he also supports the current NATO-approved plan to shift over lead responsibility for all of Afghanistan's territories to the Afghan National Security Forces by mid-2013, at which point international forces will shift to a role of training, assisting, and advising the Afghans. That interim milestone was set at the Lisbon summit of 2010 as followed up in the NATO Chicago summit earlier this year.

But he also believes that until the end of 2014, the Afghan security forces will not be able to operate completely on their own and will need American "enablers" to help them fly planes and helicopters, do engineering, counter roadside bombs, and to help them with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, known as ISR.

The pace at which U.S. forces withdraw between now and the end of 2014 should be determined by the conditions on the ground and several other factors, according to Dunford.

"I agree that there will be further troop reductions through 2014 but the pace of withdrawal over the next 25 months will depend on several variables, including progress of the campaign, the state of the insurgency, and the readiness of the ANSF to assume full security leadership and responsibility to the Afghan government by the end of 2014," he wrote.

THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/GettyImages