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US Lawmakers Hear Diverse Opinions on Afghanistan


US Lawmakers Hear Diverse Opinions on Afghanistan
US Lawmakers Hear Diverse Opinions on Afghanistan

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As President Obama continues to consider his next steps on Afghanistan, U.S. lawmakers have received more advice from strategic and regional specialists about the pros and cons of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism strategies, and what is at stake for U.S. security interests.

Lawmakers have absorbed a dizzying accumulation of recommendations for U.S. policy in Afghanistan, with their advantages and disadvantages, presented by policy and academic experts.

In several hearings, subjects have included the pros and cons of inserting thousands of additional U.S. troops, pursuit of counter-terrorist or counter-insurgency strategies or both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the relationship between Taliban forces in both places and al-Qaida, and the importance of an efficient government in Kabul.

Among those briefing committees was Fred Kagan, Resident Scholar at The American Enterprise Institute, who helped General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO force commander in Afghanistan, formulate his recommendations for President Obama.

According to Kagan, President Obama, military leaders, and civilian advisors must be clear about the objectives in Afghanistan. A counter-terrorism strategy, he says, must be embedded in a counter-insurgency strategy, and makes the case that there is no meaningful ideological difference between al-Qaida, and Taliban groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"The Afghan Taliban, the Quetta Shura Taliban, sees itself as the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan, it is the franchise that will control that part of territory. The Taliban in Pakistan sees itself as the franchise that will control Pakistan. But all of that is under the umbrella of an al-Qaida effort to re-establish the caliphate for the entire Islamic world," he said.

Kagan rejects suggestions that the strategy proposed by General McChrystal would involve the U.S. in an endless war. But he says an effort to defeat al-Qaida cannot be separated from a need to defeat its allies and local proxies, and make clear that ideologies espoused by both must be defeated.

In the view of University of Chicago Political Science Professor Robert Pape, General McChrystal's request for tens of thousands of additional troops would neither guarantee success nor reduce the motivation for Afghans to use terrorist tactics to resist what for them amounts to occupation.

Pape advocates a policy of offshore balancing in which the U.S. would support Afghan forces on the ground with training and equipment, and with air and naval power projected from a distance.

"This strategy is what toppled the Taliban when it controlled 90 percent of the country in 2001. It is our best way to prevent the Taliban from seizing Kabul, establishing significant terrorist camps in Afghanistan, and controlling large areas as safe havens for Taliban and al-Qaida leaders," he said.

The decision of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai to hold a new election came as a relief to U.S. lawmakers worried that public anger among Afghans with a government widely considered corrupt could lead to intensified conflict and instability.

Democratic Congressman Adam Smith, who chaired a House Armed Services Terrorism Subcommittee hearing, said the development will provide a chance for a more legitimate election, but challenges remain. "The central focus of that challenge I think is finding a reliable partner in Afghanistan, finding a government, a tribal structure, a provincial structure, somebody, some group of people that we can work with to offer the Afghan people a viable alternative to the Taliban," he said.

Concerns about the Afghan government were evident in remarks on Thursday by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

U.S. troops, Pelosi said, are at greater risk now because the Bush administration focused more on Iraq than Afghanistan, and she added that an absence of good governance has deprived the U.S. of a reliable partner. "The corruption issue has prevented the connection between the Afghan people and the government [from being] something that is a good partnership for us to join into," she said.

For the second time in as many weeks, Democratic Senator Robert Byrd [on Thursday] issued a warning to President Obama about Afghanistan.

Describing the link between al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan as tenuous, Byrd again questioned any notion of nation-building succeeding there, and said the U.S. must narrow the focus of its mission. "Our national security interests lie in defeating, I say defeating, no I go further, in destroying, in destroying, in destroying al Qaida. Until we take that, and only that, mission seriously, we risk adding the United States to the long, long, long list of nations whose best laid plans have died, died, died on the cold, barren rocky slopes of that far off country, Afghanistan," he said.

However, among the many current and former members of the military advising Congress and the administration, are General Barry McCaffrey, and Lieutenant General David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan until 2005.

McCaffrey and Barno told a separate congressional committee that the U.S. has a clear moral responsibility to follow through with commitments to the people of Afghanistan.

MCCAFREY: It would be an unbelievable disaster in the short run, meaning 10 years or less, if we withdrew and left the population to the tender mercies of Taliban retribution

BARNO: There is very little to no interest across Afghanistan to see the Taliban come back. And we know exactly and explicitly what the outcome is going to look like should that occur. Moreover those that aligned with us, those that have sided with us, those that are working with us, from Kabul all the way down to the smallest village there are going to pay that price.

Beth Ellen Cole, Senior Program Officer at the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations of the United States Institute of Peace, says there are reasons to believe Afghanistan can be saved from further deterioration. "Five decades of these missions have shown us that we can stabilize nations. Cambodia, El Salvador, Sierra Leone, Rwanda. Many, many places that have been completely torn apart and shattered," she said.

Ongoing debate about Afghanistan came as Congress approved legislation authorizing $130 billion needed to sustain U.S. operations both there and in Iraq, where the U.S. will be drawing down forces in line with a schedule set by President Obama.

It also came as the Obama administration struck back at criticisms from congressional Republicans, and from former U.S Vice President Dick Cheney, that President Obama is placing U.S. forces in further danger by delaying a decision on General McChrystal's recommendations.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said it was the Bush administration that failed to provide the resources and troops required for Afghanistan.