WASHINGTON Lawmakers called for a reduced U.S. role in Afghanistan on Wednesday, piling pressure on the Obama administration to accelerate the end to a long, costly war as it debates an initial drawdown this summer.
Leading senators from both parties called the U.S. presence in Afghanistan excessive after nearly a decade of war as they considered President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the U.S. mission in Kabul.
"While the United States has genuine national security interests in Afghanistan, our current commitment in troops and dollars is neither proportional to our interests nor sustainable," said Democrat John Kerry, the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
Ryan Crocker, the one-time U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Pakistan whom Obama tapped as the new envoy in Kabul, echoed military leaders in describing the military progress Obama's surge of 30,000 troops had enabled in the Taliban's southern heartland. Like them, he also said it was reversible.
Kerry and others voiced doubts about the success of the strategy in Afghanistan, where military commanders say a surge of U.S. troops has pushed the Taliban out of some areas but where a political settlement that could bring lasting peace may be years away.
Lawmakers expressed concern about the durability of soldiers' successes in southern Afghanistan and noted that attacks had surged along the eastern border with Pakistan.
"Despite ten years of investment ... we remain in a cycle that produces relative progress but fails to deliver a secure political or military resolution," said Senator Richard Lugar, the committee's ranking Republican.
"The more important question is whether we have an efficient strategy for protecting our vital interests that does not involve massive open-ended expenditures and does not require us to have more faith than is justified in Afghan institutions."
CRITICAL PLANNING WINDOW
After the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, congressional opposition has quickly grown to a war that now costs over $110 billion a year and has yet to yield decisive results on the battlefield or in marathon aid efforts.
Against that backdrop, Obama is expected to announce that he will bring a sizable number of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan home starting in July.
But the debate over the initial drawdown and over the impact of bin Laden's death has revealed a divide between the White House and military commanders, who are warning a hasty drawdown may be counter-productive.
While military leaders say it is too early to measure the impact of bin Laden's death in Afghanistan -- where soldiers are fighting the Taliban, not al Qaeda -- Kerry said Washington must seize on the chance to "recalibrate" Afghan policy.
"We have a critical planning window before us to make the necessary adjustments to our strategy to ensure a successful transition in 2014," he said.
Under a NATO plan, the Afghan government will be expected to take on lead security responsibilities by 2014.
Crocker, who earned a reputation for effective diplomacy and granular knowledge of a complicated region at the height of Iraq's sectarian war, vowed to work to improve the record of U.S. aid in Afghanistan and to work to curb corruption.
"If Iraq was hard, and it was hard, Afghanistan in many respects is harder." Crocker said.
"Hard does not mean impossible."
AID UNDER SPOTLIGHT
The appointment of Crocker, whose predecessor Karl Eikenberry had an uneasy relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, is part of Obama's bid to boost U.S. leverage in Kabul and to energize nascent peace talks with the Taliban.
"At this point, there has been so much bad blood sown between the (U.S.) Embassy and the presidential palace that only someone like Crocker even has a chance of fixing the relationship. But even that might not be enough," said Joshua Foust, an analyst at the American Security Project.
A multibillion-dollar U.S. aid program will be a major focus for Crocker, especially as the administration seeks to defend costly civilian efforts against budget cuts.
The hearing comes a day after Senate Democrats released a report that warned the benefits of billions in U.S. foreign aid for Afghanistan could melt away with the planned troop drawdown.
Rather than slashing non-military aid, the report recommended channeling assistance into projects that Afghans can more easily sustain on their own. It also proposed looking for ways to parcel out aid more slowly, perhaps by creating a trust fund that could disperse funds as appropriate.
(Additional reporting by JoAnne Allen; Editing by Warren Strobel and Todd Eastham)