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US Lawmakers Hear Assessments on Afghanistan


As President Bush ordered additional troops for Afghanistan, and appealed to Congress to approve billions of dollars for the war against the Taleban and insurgents, U.S. lawmakers heard pessimistic assessments from experts. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

Funding for Afghanistan, and the role of the 36,000-strong NATO force, which includes about 16,000 U.S. troops, were key topics in a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Referring to the president's decision to bolster troop levels, Congressman Tom Lantos says not just 3,200 troops, as the president specified, but also the 21,500 troops being deployed to Iraq should go to Afghanistan. He said they could make a difference there against an expected Taleban offensive in the spring.

But Lantos directs most of his frustration at NATO partners, who he said have not been pulling their weight in Afghanistan.

"It is simply unacceptable that NATO commanders are left to beg for troops from countries like Germany, France, Italy and Spain," said Tom Lantos. "It is an outrage that only troops from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom are deployed to the most hazardous spots."

Such criticism was also heard this week in the House Armed Services Committee, where U.S. defense officials expressed their frustration, but recognized progress, such as NATO's assumption of command of provincial reconstruction teams.

Experts told the Foreign Affairs panel that, in addition to the NATO issue, Afghanistan is at risk because U.S. and international aid is not sufficient to see the country through its struggle to solidify democracy, and fight the Taleban.

Tony Cordesman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the U.S. and NATO need to take a broader look at what they are doing, and how progress is measured, both in terms of aid and the military effort.

"It is not how we plan to spend money, it is the facts on the ground that we create, beginning this spring, that matter," said Tony Cordesman. "Far too often, we throw money at the problem, but we have no way of measuring where it sticks."

Cordesman cites opinion polls he says show the Afghan public is turning against the government, as well as U.S. and NATO forces, due to a general lack of progress.

But Peter Bergen, terrorism expert and former journalist, disagrees, saying support for the Taleban is largely in the south where they are strongest.

While he acknowledges the Taleban and al-Qaida are resurgent, Bergen believes an energized aid effort, along with sufficient military forces could make a difference.

"We are in a situation where a surge, militarily, diplomatically, economically, and reconstruction, can actually work," he said. "The people want it in Afghanistan, and, of course, there is international consensus behind it, as well."

Saying "Afghanistan is ours to lose," Retired Lieutenant General David Barno, former U.S. and coalition commander from 2003 to 2005, says the majority of the Afghan people want long-term international support.

"Afghans have had the experience of living under Taleban rule for years, and virtually none that I have ever encountered want to go back to that state," said David Barno. "That is a powerful inoculation against the return of the Taleban in Afghanistan."

In addition to committee chairman Lantos, who describes Afghanistan as "being on the brink," other lawmakers express pessimism about the course of events.

Republican Congressman Ed Royce calls the situation "dire."

"The central government is very weak," said Ed Royce. "Our allies generally have made what I call a half-hearted commitment to forging stability there, and the Taleban is clearly strengthening, and a spring attack, an offensive, across the country is anticipated.

The House hearing, and remarks by President Bush, also focused on the problem of opium production in Afghanistan, which currently supplies some 92 percent of the world market.

Lantos urges President Hamid Karzai to call a special assembly of tribal leaders to seek greater support for the counter-narcotics efforts, and says NATO and U.S. forces need to adopt a more aggressive policy to seek out and destroy opium stockpiles and drug laboratories.