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Experts Urge US, NATO, Regional Cooperation on Afghanistan

Experts testifying at a Capitol Hill congressional hearing have told lawmakers that the United States and NATO allies need to take new steps to support the government of Afghanistan, warning that resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida forces based in Pakistan pose a long-term threat. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton provided a blunt assessment of the situation in Afghanistan as he opened the hearing.

Pointing to security gaps that have gone unfilled by NATO, he says the recent deployment of an additional 3,200 U.S. troops will have short-term effect, while asserting that the U.S. risks a strategic failure with a potentially disastrous outcome.

Witnesses shared Skelton's view that Afghanistan must become the central focus of U.S. efforts against terrorism.

Retired Lieutenant General David Barno, with the National Defense University, says the U.S. and NATO are at a strategic crossroads.

He points to statistics showing an increase in security incidents in Afghanistan since 2004 from 900 to nearly 9,000, with roadside bombings going from 325 to 1,469, and suicide bombings from three to more than 130.

Although not a comprehensive depiction of the entire situation, Barno says these indicators are a cause for concern.

"Only if we fully commit our best efforts in all three areas, leadership, strategy and resources, and relentlessly integrate these three internally within the U.S. effort and externally within the international effort, will we be able to seize the opportunities available to reverse these troubling trends," said General Barno.

One key says Barno will be a stronger Pakistani commitment, hopefully once the political situation there stabilizes, to assert further control in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan.

Karl Inderfurth, a former ambassador now with George Washington University, says a key to achieving a stable and peaceful Afghanistan will be improving the relationship between Kabul and Islamabad.

Stability in both countries, Inderfurth says, depends on an effective strategy to help Pakistan counter the Taliban and al-Qaida along the border, and extremism internally, while making clear that the U.S. is in the region to stay.

"Unless Pakistan recognizes that we are going to actually stick with them then they are not going to make that full commitment themselves to deal with this because once we leave then they are back to square one, so a long-term resolve, a long-term commitment for both Afghanistan and Pakistan is essential," said Karl Inderfurth.

In the view of Barnett Rubin, with New York University's Center on International Cooperation, only a multi-faceted strategy combining military, political and economic elements provides hope.

Calling it a two-nation struggle involving Pakistan-based Taliban and al-Qaida forces, Rubin has this recommendation.

"There is no way to succeed in Pakistan and Afghanistan without a partner in Pakistan whose actions in alliance with us are also supported by the main political forces in Pakistan," said Barnett Rubin. "Unfortunately today they are not, because the military regime of General Musharraf lacks legitimacy in Pakistan today."

Rubin adds that Afghanistan will also need long-term foreign assistance, and a regional security arrangement involving the U.S. and major allies, and neighboring governments.

As for NATO's commitment, an emotional topic for members of congress, retired Lieutenant General Barno says:

"The leadership in those [NATO] countries have a responsibility to make that case to their people," he said. "Their national leaders have got to make the argument why the Afghanistan effort is an important strategic arena to be involved with and why there is an extraordinary threat that is emanating from there."

Barno says he is not necessarily optimistic that a new U.S. administration, whether Democratic or Republican, will do much to lessen NATO reluctance to become more involved in Afghanistan.

Barnett Rubin takes a different view, saying he believes Afghanistan is one area in which a new U.S. administration is likely to benefit from an increased desire for more cooperation by NATO and other governments.

"They are all very much looking forward to our presidential election," he said. "There is definitely a hunger for a U.S. leadership that they can trust and rely on."

A greater U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, including efforts against widespread record opium production in the country, has been one of the priorities of majority Democrats, and some Republicans in Congress.

House Armed Services Committee chairman Skelton says while NATO allies and other partners must do more, the U.S. must demonstrate a strong commitment to success in Afghanistan, which he defines as ensuring that Taliban and al-Qaida are destroyed and Afghanistan does not become a safe harbor for terrorists.