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Hard Questions About Progress in Afghanistan

After the September 11th attacks on the United States in 2001, Afghanistan became the first front in America's War on Terror. U.S. forces quickly deposed that country's Taleban regime and launched an effort to modernize its long-neglected economy, infrastructure and political system. On Thursday, a House subcommittee of the U.S. Congress held a hearing to learn what progress is being made in Afghanistan.

The hearing began with fairly positive statements - democracy is on the advance, the countryside is developing, schools are opening, and the drug trade is being targeted aggressively. But the pleasantries were brief.

Opposition Democratic Party Representative Gary Ackerman of New York noted that there seems to be a correlation between extending Afghanistan's road system and an increasing U.S. casualty rate. "It seems to be going completely the wrong way. The effort seems greater, the intensity of our resolve seems greater, the bravery of the Afghan people and their resolve seem greater, but it's like that cartoon with the guy, kind of disheveled, sitting on the curb holding a bottle, saying, 'the drunker I sit here, the longer I get'."

Forty American and Afghan contractors working for the U.S. Agency for International development have been killed in Afghanistan since 2003.

Rear Admiral Robert Moeller said that the deeper U.S. forces expand their reach in Afghanistan, they more they come into contact with insurgents. He said this is resulting in higher U.S. military casualties. "We anticipate that we're going to see a fairly violent spring and summer, and then an improvement in overall conditions as we get toward the end of the year."

Committee members -- all members of the legislative branch -- asked witnesses representing the executive branch more hard questions. If Afghanistan provides 90 percent of the world's opium and heroin supply, and poppy production makes up 60 percent of the country's gross domestic product, why hasn't the State Department used more than one billion dollars allocated by Congress to research the possibility of killing the crop with a micro-herbicide?

Thomas Schweich from the State Department's International Narcotics Bureau, said Afghanistan's president and NATO partners in the country oppose field testing of this special biological agent.

"We determined that there was absolutely no place we could field test the micro-herbicide, because of the resistance. I'm sure you we are quite aware that President Karzai resists any sort of aerial spraying or eradication even with traditional herbicides, and there is even greater resistance to a micro-herbicide."

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, Republican Party member from California scoffed at the response, saying there are "lots of places" for testing in the United States.

The hearing also reconfirmed Afghanistan's high infant mortality rate -- every fifth child dies by the age of five. In addition, the country has few sources of fresh water.

James Kunder from the U.S. Agency for International Development was asked if assistance could go directly to the countryside without passing through a ministry. "We're trying to do both at the same time. We're trying to build those 600 health clinics in the countryside to have an immediate impact. We're trying to do the irrigation work that I described, but simultaneously we're trying to build the systems that will turn the numbers around.

Afghanistan is considered to be a pivotal country in the global war on terror. But as Subcommittee Chairman, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida noted, America's job there is not complete.