U.S. lawmakers have expressed concerns about stability in Afghanistan, saying insurgent attacks and expanding opium production continue to threaten U.S. and allied efforts there. Top U.S. officials and experts testified in four separate hearings about challenges facing the Afghan people.
Afghanistan was in the spotlight as Congress considers a multi-billion dollar spending bill for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
U.S. officials delivered a mixture of optimism and blunt realism.
James Kunder, of the U.S. Agency for International Development points to steady important progress but adds there is a very long way to go.
State Department Afghanistan Coordinator, Maureen Quinn, points to successes such as elections, and legislative and judicial reforms, but says Afghanistan has more work ahead.
"This includes taking the next steps necessary to create a sustainable, secure environment, strengthen democratic institutions, educate its people, respect and enforce the rule of law and human rights, and develop relations further with its neighbors," she said.
Congressional concern centers on insurgent attacks that have targeted aid workers and pose a threat to reconstruction.
Rear Admiral Robert Moeller of the U.S. Central Command delivered this sober summary.
"The Taleban has demonstrated resilience after defeats. They appear tactically stronger on the battlefield this year and they demonstrate an increased willingness to use suicide bomber and IED [Improvised Explosive Device] tactics, " he said.
Admiral Moeller adds that while the Taleban cannot retain control over large areas of Afghanistan, their funding as well as logistical and ideological direction remain linked to al-Qaida, and they are disruptive to reconstruction.
Seth Jones, with the RAND Corporation, added, "I believe the security environment has notably deteriorated in Afghanistan, especially in the east and south."
Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman poses this question. "Are we aggressively going after insurgents. Do we know how to fight an insurgency? Is NATO prepared, do they know how to fight an insurgency?"
Lawmakers are generally unhappy with progress in controlling opium cultivation, the profits from which U.S. officials say help support insurgency and terrorism.
That was the subject of this exchange between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski.
"If we lose control of opium, we lose control of Afghanistan," said Mikulski. "Is that a good analysis?"
"Senator, I think the single most important threat to Afghanistan now, in a strategic sense, is probably the opium trade, because it has not only the effect of funding terrorist but it is a source for people who are then able to threaten the central government, threaten people in the provinces," Rice replied.
Secretary Rice's statement that the U.S. has been very attentive to the opium problem has not satisfied lawmakers.
California Republican Ed Royce is troubled by what sees as signs Afghanistan could return to being a failed state. "That government is still plagued by corruption. The economy is still largely based on drug trafficking. The agricultural sector frankly is heavily dominated by the poppie trade," he said.
Thomas Schweich, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics and Law Enforcement, said "We believe that fostering a stable democracy in Afghanistan requires curbing the drug economy and the related criminality and corruption in the region. We believe this will be a very long and hard effort."
Congresswoman Betty McCollum worries about the destabilizing effects of all of these problems. "If we don't get that right, if people don't see improvement in that, they don't see improvement in the economic structure, they don't see the politics really making a difference in their lives immediately, then we have not gained the strong foothold that we need in order to have a foundation to move forward on in Afghanistan," she said.
Jones added "Institution-building, this is more than just providing technical assistance, has been challenging, especially dealing with issues of corruption, including within the Afghan government. These problems have negatively impacted the ability of the U.S., USAID, State Department, Defense Department and others to help get aid through and establish sustainable changes in the long-run."
U.S. officials say Afghan forces have been bearing the brunt of recent battles.
The Afghan National Army now numbers about 26,000, and officials say it is increasingly trusted and respected by the Afghan people.
With about 20,000 U.S. troops still in country, NATO is also in the process of dramatically expanding its role in Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told lawmakers he is disappointed with a decision to trim about $1 billion from a Bush administration request for nearly $6 billion in 2007 for security forces in Afghanistan, and in Iraq.