CAPITOL HILL —
High-ranking Obama administration officials have downplayed the likelihood of complete military disengagement from Afghanistan, but provided little insight on negotiations for a residual U.S. troop presence in the country beyond next year. Senior officials testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday.
What has America’s 12-year engagement in Afghanistan helped achieve? Quite a lot, according to the State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, James Dobbins.
“Life expectancy has gone from 44 years to 60 years. Afghanistan has gone from having the worst literacy rate in the entire world, maybe 15 percent, to 33 percent literacy today. Going from one TV station that was government-owned to 75, nearly all independent. Going from 40,000 telephones to 18 million telephones. Cell phone coverage going from zero to 90 percent of the country. These are pretty remarkable outcomes," said Dobbins.
And U.S. and NATO efforts to train Afghan security forces are also succeeding, according to the Pentagon’s top official for Asian security matters, Peter Lavoy.
“These [Afghan] forces are out there leading combat operations throughout the country. Despite heavy fighting, the Afghans are holding the gains of recent years. And the Taliban must come to grips with the fact that they cannot defeat the Afghan National Security Forces militarily," said Lavoy.
How Afghan forces would hold up on their own is an open question. The United States is to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year. So far, the Obama administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have been unable to agree on a residual American troop presence beyond 2014. U.S. officials are not ruling out a so-called “zero option” - meaning no troops - if negotiations fail, but James Dobbins sees that possibility as remote.
“Of course, without an agreement on our presence in Afghanistan, we would not remain. But we do not believe that is the likely outcome of these negotiations. The Afghans actually need us to stay. Most Afghans want us to stay, and we have promised to stay," he said.
Several lawmakers expressed frustration with what they see as a lack of clarity by President Barack Obama on America’s future in Afghanistan. Republican Senator Bob Corker characterized some of Karzai’s reported beliefs and negotiating positions as “crazy”, but noted that Afghanistan will have a new leader next year.
“I am asking this administration to look beyond Karzai - he is going to be gone in April - to look at our national interest, to make some decision with clarity and show some world leadership," said Corker.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez spelled out what he sees as the bottom line:
“The United States needs to make clear once again that we are committed to a long-term partnership with Afghanistan. Period," said Menedez.
Menendez added, however, that it is President Karzai who will decide whether that partnership materializes, saying, “The ball is in his court.”
Related video report by Kokab Farshori: