The U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, sat before the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee earlier this week to discuss the current strategy in Afghanistan and signs of progress, if any, toward the administration’s stated goal of “reversing the momentum” of the Taliban and its allies. Republican and Democratic senators showed much skepticism and frustration in voicing their growing concern with the war.
Committee Chair John Kerry recognized in his opening statement that the war in Afghanistan has surpassed the war in Vietnam and is now the longest military operation in U.S. history. He articulated that it is our responsibility to present the American people, our troops and allies with “the best strategy possible.”
Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) expressed his confusion about our objectives in Afghanistan and asked for a responsible allocation of our finite resources:
“There is substantial concern about our course in Afghanistan.[…] The lack of clarity in Afghanistan does not end with the President’s timetable. Both civilian and military operations in Afghanistan are proceeding without a clear definition of success. There has been much discussion of our counterinsurgency strategy and methods, but very little explanations of what metrics must be achieved before the country is considered secure. At some moments it appears as if we are trying to remake the economic, political and security culture of Afghanistan. We should know by now that such grand ambitions are beyond our resources and powers. At other moments it appears we’re content with a narrow security-driven definition of success. Namely, preventing an implacably hostile Taliban regime from taking over the government and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven regardless of what government is in power. […] I recognize that the situation Afghanistan is fluid and not easily defined. And I also understand why an administration would not want to be pinned down to a specific definition of success. The problem is that we are spending enormous resources in Afghanistan. Our resources are finite and they must be focused effectively.”
Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), who offered an amendment to the war funding bill that would have required a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, called for a “vision” and reiterated his support for a clear and flexible timetable for withdrawing all U.S. combat troops from the country. Ambassador Holbrooke disclosed he was “very leery” about setting an end date, but defended President Obama’s July 2011 timetable and echoed other administration officials who have been downplaying the date by saying that it’s only a date to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops, based on conditions on the ground.
Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) expressed his frustration, saying he had never understood President Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan, and that the goals for success are not clear.
“A number of us wrote a letter to you, asking for this hearing, and my guess is you might have had hearings anyway. But the reason we wrote the letter, bipartisan letter, was to provide Congress and the American people with a definition of the end state for our civilian operations in Afghanistan, clear objectives for the civilian mission and a detailed plan for achieving those objectives and the very specific measurable metrics being used to measure progress towards achieving those objectives. I have to say, I’ve been here for an hour and ten minutes, I have heard nothing, nothing about that and while I respect the Ambassador, I’ve heard a lot about process, I’ve heard a lot about meetings. I have no earthly idea, no earthly idea what our objectives are on the civilian front.”
On the specifics demanded by Sen. Corker, Holbrooke said that they’re trying to rebuild the agriculture sector, provide alternatives to opium production, strengthen the country’s justice system and build local governance. Holbrooke wanted to clarify the difference between an end state and an exit strategy. He expressed that if the U.S. walks away from Afghanistan there would be devastating consequences. He called for a “sustainable end state which involves continued American economic and development assistance,” in order to prevent Afghanistan from going back to Taliban, and stop Al Qaida from launching new attacks on the U.S.
Rather than backing away from an end date for the military occupation, Holbrooke could be embracing his vision of a civilian strategy as a replacement for the counterproductive military presence we’re seeing now. The evidence shows that policing and intelligence would be far more effective in combating Al Qaeda than a large-scale military occupation (what is soon to be 1,000 soldiers for each Al Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan). This strategy would not only be more effective, but as Holbrooke points out it would save U.S. taxpayers billions that are being spent on the military campaign: “This would not be cheap, but it would be a fraction of the money that is now being authorized and appropriated for the military campaign. When we would be able to transition to that is impossible for me or anyone to say, but it won’t be on a single day, it would be a gradual process.” We need to stop spending a fortune on a military strategy which has proved to be counterproductive in dealing with the threat of terrorism in and from Afghanistan and turn our focus to the civilian approach. Only then will the Afghan people show “willingness and ability … to assume ownership of the effort,” an essential element which, as Sen. Kerry mentioned in his opening statement, we have had the least control over.
Senator Cardin (D-MD) voiced his concern about U.S. and international aid being a source of funding “a corrupt regime which robs the country of good governance, which is absolutely essential”. He wanted to be assured about progress on accountability, that the funds are being used purposefully and not toward corruption. Regarding that, Holbrooke said they have set an accountability criteria for each ministry and that they’ve made accountability their “hallmark,” while trying to build government competence.
It is encouraging to see growing skepticism in both the House and Senate regarding the war. We need to see a continued drumbeat of members of Congress questioning of the underlying counterinsurgency strategy and making sure our civilian funds are being spent on effective programs that will actually improve conditions on the ground rather than being pocketed by corrupt contractors and warlords.
Ambassador Holbrooke left the hearing to fly to Afghanistan where he will attend the International Kabul Conference on July 20 and 21.
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