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US Official Disputes Dire Assessments of Afghanistan

A senior U.S. official is taking issue with two independent reports that portray a dire political and security situation in Afghanistan. Appearing before a Senate panel Thursday, the State Department official sought to counter the reports' assessments that Afghanistan risks becoming a failed state, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher appeared before the Senate panel a day after two independent studies warned Afghanistan could become a failed state amid renewed violence, rising opium production and concerns over NATO's commitment to providing more troops to counter a regrouped Taliban.

Boucher took issue with the reports conclusions. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Boucher highlighted improvements in the country's economy and education, as well as progress on the battlefield. He said the Taliban are controlling less areas of the Afghanistan than they used to, although he acknowledged that Taliban fighters have increasingly turned to terrorism.

"We are better off in terms of their not controlling places and not having so many concentrations where they can operate from. We are not better off in terms of bombs. Because they have been losing on the battlefield, they have turned more and more to terror," he said.

Lawmakers challenged Boucher's optimistic assessment of Afghanistan. "The facts just don't bear that out," said Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican.

Retired Marine Corps General James Jones, who until 2006 served as the supreme allied commander of NATO agrees with Senator Hagel. He led the independent studies that offered dire assessments of the situation in Afghanistan.

He told the committee that there has been little progress in terms of judicial or police reform, and that the situation on the ground remains precarious. "There has been progress on the ground in Afghanistan, but I worry about a loss of momentum. I worry that the safe havens for the insurgents are more numerous now than they were one or two or three years ago," he said.

Jones called for a comprehensive counter-narcotics effort, improved training for the national police, creation of a credible judicial system and more focused development assistance.

Thomas Pickering, a retired U.S. diplomat, co-chaired one of the reports with General Jones. That report, by the Afghanistan Study Group, whose members are non-governmental experts, urged better international coordination on Afghanistan. "We believe overall that the effort to come together on an assessment and a strategy for Afghanistan is way overdue. We have proposed that if this is not accomplished rapidly by the U.S. and its friends, that perhaps NATO could take the lead in appointing an eminent persons group that could bring together Afghans, our partners and ourselves around a strateg," said Ambassador Pickering.

Pickering noted the recent decision by British politician Paddy Ashdown to withdraw his bid to be U.N. envoy for Afghanistan, saying it was "a nail in the coffin" for international coordination efforts.

Ashdown, a former U.N. envoy to Bosnia, said he had withdrawn his name because of insufficient support from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.