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Experts Discuss US Options in Afghanistan, Pakistan


A panel of experts urged changes in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their testimony before a U.S. Senate panel on Thursday came as the Obama administration is conducting a review of U.S. policy in the region.

Much of the hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee dealt with Afghanistan, where President Barack Obama has decided to send another 17,000 troops to respond to the worsening violence there.

The experts at the hearing agreed with the president's decision, but said success in Afghanistan would require more than just an increase in troop numbers.

The experts agreed on the need to unify the NATO and American military command chain, help the Afghan government increase the ranks of its Army and intensify U.S. engagement in the region -- proposals offered by the Senate Armed Services Committee top Republican, Senator John McCain of Arizona, in a Washington speech this week.

Retired Army Lieutenant General David Barno, Director of the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, offered a sober assessment.

"In my judgment, the international effort in Afghanistan is drifting toward failure. There is still time to turn it around. But it will take strong U.S. leadership, a change of strategic direction, focused and substantial effort," he said.

Barno called for a unified counterinsurgency approach. "A unified strategy must include counter-narcotics, rule of law, governance, development, building security forces and counterterrorism," he said.

Barno suggested pursuing this approach in three phases. He said the United States and its allies should focus first on stabilizing Afghanistan and setting the conditions for a successful presidential election later this year. He said that next year, the focus should shift toward building additional Afghan security forces and state institutions. Barno described the final phase, to take place between 2015 and 2025, as movement to full Afghan control as security improves and economic capability takes root.

James Dobbins, Director of the RAND Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center and a former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the goal of U.S. policy in Afghanistan should be security for the Afghan people.

"Our job is neither to defeat the Taliban nor to determine the future shape of Afghan society. The American and allied objectives should be to reverse the current negative security trends and ensure that fewer innocent Afghans are killed next year than this year. If as a result of our efforts the current rise in violence is reversed and the population made more secure, the Afghan people will be able to determine their own future through peaceful rather than violent competition of ideas, people and political factions," he said.

The experts agreed that Pakistan poses a top challenge to the region.

Lieutenant General Barno called on the United States to assist Pakistan in reforming the country militarily and economically. "We have to have a vision of a long term relationship there that allows them to believe in the sustained presence and the sustained involvement of the United States in the region. Their lack of that belief today undercuts all of our efforts," he said.

Marin Strmecki, Senior Vice President and Director of Programs at the Smith Richardson Foundation, suggested that the United States use development aid as leverage to spur greater efforts by Islamabad against extremists in the border area with Afghanistan. He called for increasing such aid to the level given to Egypt -- the largest recipient of U.S. development aid.

"I think if Pakistan moves into a fully cooperative posture, vis-à-vis Afghanistan, we should be prepared to put on the table Egypt-level assistance in the long-term to rebuild Pakistan's educational infrastructure, its economy, and to prove that the United States has an interest in Pakistan -- not because it is going to help us in the war on terror, but for Pakistan's own sake. I think it is important that that come only after Pakistan has become fully cooperative in our relationship," he said.

A number of U.S. lawmakers favor increasing development aid to Pakistan, although not all of them say it should be made conditional.

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