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Senators Reassess July 2011 Target for Afghanistan

Two key Senators expressed reservations Sunday about the ability of the U.S. military to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in a little more than a year, as planned by President Barack Obama.

“I think the president is going to have to redefine the plan” to begin withdrawing in July 2011, said Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Dick Lugar, who argued that the United States has not adequately defined success for Afghanistan.

“We’ve never gotten to that point. That’s a part of our problem,” the Indiana Republican said, adding that without parameters, the argument about the date and timing of the withdrawal would go on. There are an estimated 94,000 troops in Afghanistan, with a surge to 100,000 planned for this fall.

Although Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein said it was “possible” to begin the withdrawal next year, the California Democrat said she couldn’t comment on whether it was likely. Feinstein and Lugar spoke Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

At a hearing last week, Gen. David Petraeus, who leads U.S. Central Command, reminded lawmakers that U.S. forces do not have a deadline for leaving the country. “It’s important that July 2011 be seen for what it is: the date when a process begins, based on conditions, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits,” he said.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed Petraeus. “We clearly understand that in July 2011 we begin to draw down our forces. The pace in which we draw down” is going to be determined by conditions, he said.

Feinstein advocated following the flow of money to terrorist groups in Afghanistan. “I am increasingly concerned that the Taliban is one part terrorist group, one part narco-cartel,” she said, adding that about 40 percent of the territory in Afghanistan is contested or controlled by the Taliban.

“Failure is not an option,” Feinstein said, and the Taliban “is on the march.” If Afghanistan falls, she said, Pakistan could go next. “In my view, the Taliban is pure evil,” she added.

Lugar cited the difficulty of training the Afghan army, including poor retention numbers, illiteracy and internal corruption. But he said that while progress was slow, it was important to emphasize the U.S. training efforts.

Meanwhile, both Senators said they were studying retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper, Obama’s pick to be the next director of national intelligence.

Although Feinstein said she would prefer a civilian in the role of directing the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies, such as CIA Director Leon Panetta, she said she is doing due diligence on Clapper’s nomination.

Lugar said he and others will ask Clapper for his opinion on what role the DNI should play in the intelligence community.

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