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US Envoy Grilled by Lawmakers on Afghan, Pakistan Strategy

President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, faced more questions on Wednesday about the administration's strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Lawmakers voiced concerns about the U.S. approach in both places.

During his latest visit to Pakistan three weeks ago and in comments since, Ambassador Holbrooke has spoken about what he believes is an important change in the attitude of Pakistanis, against the Taliban.

Appearing before the House of Representatives Oversight Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Holbrooke said three key groups in Pakistan now have a firm grasp of the situation, although he says they arrived at that point slowly.

"President Zardari and his PPP party, Nawaz Sharif and his brother [the] chief minister of the Punjab and their party, and the Pakistani army, and all three are united and public opinion in Pakistan has begun to coalesce around common opposition," he said.

Calling Pakistan a strategic priority, Holbrooke added that without elimination of sanctuaries there for the Taliban and al-Qaida, success will be virtually unachievable across the border in Afghanistan.

Ambassador Holbrooke cited a recent public opinion survey in Afghanistan by the International Republican Institute showing overwhelming public opposition to the Taliban, but declining regard for the government.

If the U.S. is unable to restructure policies to improve the capacities of Afghanistan's government and security forces, he said it will become more difficult to achieve an exit from the situation.

Democrats and Republicans are equally concerned about both countries, but particularly about how U.S. economic, development, and military aid Pakistan will receive over the next five years will be managed.

"There have been serious concerns about waste, fraud and abuse, both directly with our partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in previous hearings of this committee with our NATO partners. Large amounts of cash have been taken to the region and often with little or no oversight," said Republican Daryl Issa.

Repubican Mike Coffman said: "This administration needs to be honest with the American people, up front, as to what this cost of reversing the situation in Afghanistan is going to take."

Democrat John Tierney, who heads the subcommittee, said he agrees with accountability measures contained in a House-passed Pakistan aid bill.

"We are painfully aware of the [Pakistan] military's proclivity for entering into truces with extremists and ceding territory to their control, only to have residents there suffer egregious regression. I support the conditions that are in the bill and wish that they were stronger and more pointed. They are applied only to the military and not to civilian assistance," he said.

"We are going to remain focused on outcomes, which is the proper way to measure what we're doing, and I think fits with the intent of your comments that we make sure number one we are honest with the American people and number two we can explain what we intend to gain from the expenditure of resources, both lives and treasure," said General Wallace Gregson, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian & Pacific Affairs.

Also discussed was the announcement by the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, that the use of air strikes in the fight against Taliban forces will be sharply restricted, in an effort to reduce civilian casualties.

Democrat Chris Van Hollen welcomed the decision. "There is no doubt that if we are going to be successful in Afghanistan we have to win over the hearts and minds of the people and I think our previous approach was counterproductive in that regard," he said.

On the question of continuing U.S. drone strikes against extremists in Pakistan, including strikes reported this week by the New York Times, General Gregson had this response. "You are correct that we have to very carefully balance objectives we are trying to achieve with these strikes with the creation of more disaffected people or the creation of more enemies," he said.

Saying the U.S. remains very mindful of the complexities of this issue, Ambassador Holbrooke added that areas of Pakistan out of the reach of American ground troops remain a refuge for those who have publicly and repeatedly said they wish to stage an attack similar to the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks on the U.S.