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U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen appear at a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. (JASON REED/JASON REED/REUTERS)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen appear at a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. (JASON REED/JASON REED/REUTERS)

Obama criticism focuses on exit date Add to ...

U.S. President Barack Obama's new Afghan war strategy - getting in big to get out fast - is coming under heavy fire at home and abroad.

While allied leaders loyally rallied to his defence and the White House deployed cabinet heavyweights and top military officers to win the hearts and minds of skeptical Americans, plans for an early exit date were immediately targeted.

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In the United States, some leading Democrats hammered Mr. Obama, who had inspired many Americans by his anti-war stand on Iraq and his stalwart opposition to the controversial troop surge that quelled violence there.

Ordering 30,000 more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan is "an expensive gamble to undertake armed nation-building on behalf of a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy," said Russ Feingold, a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin.

The Taliban jeered the escalation.

Soon there will be "lots of coffins heading to America from Afghanistan," said Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman who predicted the U.S.-led foreign forces would follow the Soviet path and retreat in ignominy. John McCain, the decorated war veteran tortured for years in a Vietnamese prison who championed the surge of forces that turned the tide in Iraq, welcomed the reinforcements even as he blasted the President for setting an exit date.

"A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies," said Mr. McCain, the Republican presidential candidate Mr. Obama defeated a year ago. But Mr. Obama's clearly defined date - July, 2011 - has a far-less-clearly defined meaning and attracted most of the furor.

Top administration officials were quick to explain that the date isn't fixed and doesn't mean much.

At a Senate armed services committee hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked whether the exit date was locked in. "I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving. It is intended to send a message about resolve and urgency," she explained.

Most allies, Canada among them, welcomed the U.S. escalation. "We look forward to furthering our collaboration with the United States in our effort to reach our common goal of leaving Afghans an Afghanistan that is better governed, more peaceful and more secure," Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said.

The Harper government has already set June, 2011, as the date when Canada's combat mission will end, irrespective of the state of the war. Mr. Cannon declined to say whether he believes Afghanistan's army and police will be able to do battle on their own by then. "I think that by the time that we get there, a great deal will have been achieved," he said from Brussels, where North Atlantic Treaty Organization ministers have gathered. Some will announce more troops in response to Mr. Obama's call.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Mr. Obama had delivered "a courageous, determined and lucid speech" but pointedly offered no additional forces. France is currently the third-largest contributor to combat operations, after the United States and Britain.

In Washington, the Obama administration's senior cabinet members struggled to explain a strategy that seems to include both a timeline and a promise not to be bound by one.

"If it appears that the strategy's not working and that we are not going to be able to transition in 2011, then we will take a hard look at the strategy itself," Defence Secretary Robert Gates said. "We're not going to just throw these guys into the swimming pool and then walk away."

Later, under intense questioning by skeptical senators, he said: "July, 2011, is not a cliff."

The Harper government has shown no such flexibility. Ministers have repeatedly confirmed Canadian troops will end combat operations in June of 2011 and start packing to leave Afghanistan.

Mr. Gates warned against setting arbitrary deadlines and of the grave risks to international security if foreign forces failed to defeat the raging Taliban insurgency.

"This part of the world represents the epicentre of extremist jihadism : the historic place where native and foreign Muslims defeated one superpower," he said. "For them to be seen to defeat the sole remaining superpower in the same place would have severe consequences for the United States and the world … less than five years after the last Soviet tank crossed the Termez Bridge out of Afghanistan, Islamic militants launched their first attack on the World Trade Center in New York. We cannot afford to make a similar mistake again."

He also defined the objective not as victory but as success.

"I believe success in Afghanistan looks a lot like success in Iraq," Mr. Gates said, referring to the capacity of the government in Baghdad to run its own internal security and defend its borders.

Follow on Twitter: @PaulKoring

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