The new war strategy of a Nobel Peace Prize winner came under fire from both left and right yesterday as US President Obamas three most senior lieutenants endured marathon sessions on Capitol Hill to start selling the strategy to voters, Congress and the world. Their toughest challenge was not to explain why a 30,000-troop surge was necessary in Afghanistan, but how Mr Obama could know when it would end. While Democrats questioned the need for a $30 billion escalation of the war in pursuit of a few hundred al-Qaeda operatives, Republicans launched a ferocious attack on the 18-month deadline set by Mr Obama for the start of a US withdrawal - a deadline that the US Defence Secretary admitted may have to be met whether or not it is justified by conditions on the ground. Senator John McCain, the elder statesman of the Republican foreign policy establishment, joined colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee in ritual expressions of support for much of the strategy on which Mr Obamas presidency and US prestige abroad may depend. He then asked pointedly, of the July 2011 deadline: You either have a winning strategy, and once it has succeeded then you withdraw, or you have an arbitrary date. Which is it? Recalling the successful US troop surge in Iraq, announced with no end date, Senator McCain said that Mr Obamas deadline sent exactly the wrong message to both our friends and enemies, and came close to accusing the President of misleading the American people in his address at the West Point military academy last night. Mr McCains remarks were addressed to Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a sombre trio who for three hours this morning had to walk a knife-edge between uncompromising bellicosity and judicious restraint. Pressed on how he could guarantee military success and a swift homecoming for the new troops who will start arriving within weeks, Mr Gates eventually admitted the entire withdrawal timetable would be re-evaluated in a strategic review planned for December 2010. Quite frankly, I detest the phrase exit strategy, he said. What we are looking for is a long-term partnership with both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Recalling Americas fateful decision to end its involvement in rebuilding Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War - a decision for which he was partly responsible as a top CIA official - Mr Gates added: We must not repeat the mistake of 1989 and turn our back on these folks. It fell to Admiral Mullen to restate Mr Obamas central argument that Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistani territories remain an immediate threat to US national security. Its the place from which we were attacked on 9/11, and should we be hit again, its the place from which I am convinced the planning, training and funding will emanate, he said. Al-Qaeda may in fact be the architect of such an attack, but the Taliban will be the bricklayers. He said that the Taliban had established shadow governments throughout Afghanistan and exercised de facto control over 11 of its 34 provinces. Todays hearings unfolded against a background of urgent diplomacy as Washington pressed home its efforts to persuade Americas Nato allies to contribute at least 5,000 troops to the surge. Barely 2,000 non-US reinforcements have so far been guaranteed, officials admitted, and Mr Gates attempted to dodge a request from Lindsey Graham, a Republican, to grade the allies from A to F on their fighting capability. With respect, I think no good purpose would be served by the exercise, Mr Gates replied, before giving Canada, Britain, Poland and the Netherlands an A. It was the only mention of the British contribution to the Afghan campaign in the Senate hearing. Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Britains ambassador to Washington, later appeared on MSNBC to describe the sacrifices made by British forces in Helmand, where 99 Britons have died this year alone. We are doing some very tough fighting, he told an audience that seldom hears about non-US troops role in any detail. Sir Nigel also insisted that Pakistan, not Afghanistan, was the strategic prize.(The Times)