The U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, faced skepticism from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill at a hearing on Afghanistan governance.
Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry began the hearing by saying that last month, the U.S. war in Afghanistan surpassed Vietnam as the longest military campaign in American history. Senator Kerry said Afghans have to be willing to take up the fight.
"For nearly nine years most Afghans have seen themselves as bystanders in a conflict between the West and al-Qaida, and a conflict being fought in their homeland," said John Kerry. "In recent months we have launched a concerted effort to convince Afghans that this is their fight. It is not an easy task given the historic distrust of foreigners on Afghan soil, but it is a vital one.
Veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke responded that there are critical differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan.
"But I want to underscore the fundamental difference between those two wars since you mentioned it Mr. Chairman," said Richard Holbrooke. "In this war, our national security interests are at stake, our homeland security is threatened. In Afghanistan that is true and it affects our policy towards Pakistan."
Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said he had never understood President Obama's declared new strategy for Afghanistan, and that U.S. goals for success in the country are simply not clear.
"I haven't understood what the administration was saying in the beginning, that is not to be critical of them, I just don't understand," said Bob Corker. "I still don't understand. I have met with you and your staff over in the State Department, it is just incredibly vague to me."
Senator Corker said he fears the Obama administration does not have the will to be successful in Afghanistan, nor the will to leave the country. Several Democratic senators, including Senator Russ Feingold, called for a clear, flexible timetable for withdrawing all U.S. combat troops from the country.
Ambassador Holbrooke defended President Obama's decision by saying he will begin to reduce the number of U.S. troops in the country in July 2011, based on conditions on the ground.
Holbrooke said there have been some substantial new initiatives, such as Afghan President Karzai's re-integration program.
"Now the biggest change in policy, which could not be implemented until the political situation was behind us, is the reintegration program that President Karzai announced in London, signed the implementing decree on two weeks ago and will unveil fully in Kabul next week," he said.
The program is designed to bring lower level Taliban fighters voluntarily into a peaceful political process.
U.S. officials distinguish between Taliban foot soldiers, many of whom may be motivated by money rather than ideology, and Taliban leaders who sheltered al-Qaida before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Ambassador Holbrooke left the hearing to go directly to the airport to fly to Germany and then to Pakistan and Afghanistan on his 15th trip there. He will attend the international Kabul conference next week, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a number of foreign ministers from other countries.