Senators challenge White House approach on Afghanistan

Foreign Relations Committee hearing comes a day after the release of two critical reports.

As new reports offer dire predictions about Afghanistan's future, US senators aired their criticisms of the White House's approach to that conflict on Thursday.

Reuters writes that members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, during a hearing with White House officials, expressed their fears that the US strategy in Afghanistan was failing. Democrats focused in particular on Afghanistan's relationship with the war in Iraq.

"The question here, in my view, is whether or not we've neglected Pakistan and Afghanistan because of our overemphasis on Iraq," said Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.
That point was raised by the Atlantic Council in a report on Wednesday that called Afghanistan a "dangerously neglected conflict" that needed more U.S. and NATO troops.
"If we should be surging forces anywhere, it's in Afghanistan, not Iraq," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat.

Reuters adds that Republicans were no less critical of the Bush administration.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, said he saw an "astounding number of contradictions about how much progress we're making" in the administration's presentation.
"If we are making so much progress, then why are we putting in 3,200 more Marines? Why are we to a breaking point in NATO on this issue?" he asked.

The committee hearing comes just a day after the release of two independent reports on the Afghanistan conflict, one by the Atlantic Council of the United States and the other by the Afghanistan Study Group. CQPolitics writes that, "Taken together, the reports painted a grim portrait of Afghanistan as a failing state six years after the U.S. invasion that toppled the Taliban government and urgently called for a new NATO strategy before the expected Taliban offensive."

"Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan," the report by the Atlantic Council said. "Unless this reality is understood and action is taken promptly, the future of Afghanistan is bleak, with regional and global impact."

But Richard Boucher, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, disputed the reports' findings and offered the Senate hearing a more optimistic assessment, reports the Financial Times.

Mr Boucher said the strategy in Afghanistan was to improve government services at the local and provincial level, and that the increase in suicide bombings was the Taliban's response to its failure to win or hold territory in conventional military clashes.
"We have had many successes but we have not yet enjoyed success and that's what we have to focus on," he said, arguing against focusing too much on a "snapshot" view of Afghanistan's weak government, increasing drugs trade and insurgency. Nato officials and their civilian counterparts have worried for over a year about the supposed lack of an overarching strategy.
But to date many attempts to craft such a strategy have failed, including French president Jacques Chirac's 2006 proposal for a "contact group" on Afghanistan and this year's attempt to install Paddy Ashdown, the former United Nations high representative to Bosnia, as international envoy to the country. Nato's formal mandate of bolstering the authority of the government of President Hamid Karzai is often problematic, because he appears to lack authority in areas outside Kabul.

But Mr. Boucher's words were tempered by those of one of the former leaders of the NATO campaign in Afghanistan, retired Marine General James Jones, who also appeared before the committee. Time Magazine reports that General Jones, who participated in both of the critical reports, "offered the panel a grim assessment."

There is a "loss of momentum" in Afghanistan that could lead to "backsliding" if not soon regained, he said. Jones warned that the failure to curb opium production and stand up a government with functioning police and courts remain major problems. "The safe havens for the insurgents are more numerous now than they were one or two or three years ago," Jones added. "If we are correct and there's a spiraling situation in an unfavorable direction, the ultimate solution is not a military problem, but it could become one."

The hearing comes amid concerns that the NATO forces in Afghanistan need reinforcements to fulfill their mission. The Associated Press reports that US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sent a letter to Germany requesting that another 3,200 German troops be sent to Afghanistan.

According to the German Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily, the one-and-a-half-page-long, undated letter to Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung arrived last week. In it, Gates specifically asks Germany to drop caveats limiting its troops to the north of Afghanistan and to send helicopter units, infantry and paratroopers that could join the fight against Taliban militants in the south, the paper reported without citing the letter. ...
...such a direct request from Washington is sure to spark fierce debate in Germany, which already has some 3,000 troops serving in the relatively peaceful north, amid growing public skepticism about the mission.

Bloomberg reports that German officials said they "have no plans" to fulfill Gates' request.

Meanwhile, Canwest News Service writes that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Britain and the US that Canada would withdraw its 2,500 soldiers from the NATO mission in Kandahar unless another 1,000 soldiers were committed to the operation. "Without that, Canada's mission will end in a year's time," warned a Canadian official.

And in an editorial page essay for the Washington Post, Victoria Nuland, the US ambassador to NATO, writes that in Afghanistan, NATO "is facing the greatest challenge in its 59-year history."

The alliance that never fired a shot in the Cold War is learning on the job. Just as the Iraq war forced adaptation in American military and development tactics and strategy, the Afghanistan mission is forcing changes in NATO. With each passing month, Canadians, Germans, Poles, Spaniards, Latvians and our other allies learn more about what it takes to wage a 21st-century counterinsurgency -- a combined civil-military effort that puts warriors side by side with development workers, diplomats and police trainers. Whether flying helicopters across the desert, embedding trainers with the Afghans, conducting tribal shuras with village elders or running joint civilian-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams, most of our allies are reinventing the way they do business. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates made clear last month, this requires new training, new equipment, a new doctrine and new flexibility in combining civil and military efforts in a truly comprehensive approach to security.
The next three to five years will be crucial for the people of Afghanistan, for the NATO alliance and for the community of democracies. The Afghanistan mission is an investment in our collective security; it is also the catalyst for the 21st-century transformation of our democratic alliance. If we can get it right in the Hindu Kush, we will also be stronger the next time we are called to defend our security and values so far from home.
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