WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration has not done enough to explain its goals for the war in Afghanistan, including what its exit strategy will be, U.S. senators said on Wednesday.
Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, that the American public needs better answers as the nine-year-old U.S.-led war shows few immediate signs of success against the resurgent Taliban.
“There are a lot of people in this country who are very confused. ... There’s a real need here in my view for clarity in terms of what actually can be accomplished,” Democratic Senator Jim Webb said at the committee hearing.
Holbrooke defended the administration’s approach, noting that President Barack Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more U.S. troops into the fight, for total troop levels approaching 100,000 this summer, was mirrored by a three-fold increase in civilian aid workers helping Afghanistan improve governance and its own security forces.
“I do not want to give an optimism/pessimism report to you ... I think there are significant elements of movement forward in many areas but I do not yet see a definitive turning point in any direction,” Holbrooke said.
The sharpening U.S. debate over the Afghan war comes as Obama’s Democratic Party gears up for tough congressional elections in November amid public frustration over the slow economic recovery and seemingly intractable Afghan conflict.
The United States has lost more than 1,000 soldiers in the war and casualties are mounting. More than 100 U.S. and other NATO-led troops were killed in Afghanistan in June, the bloodiest month of the war.
The Senate hearing came as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepares to lead a U.S. team to a conference in Kabul next week aimed at putting more detail on plans to gradually shift more responsibility to the government of President Hamid Karzai, who critics have called an unreliable partner in the fight to defeat the Taliban.
Committee Chairman Senator John Kerry, noting that Afghanistan last month surpassed Vietnam as the longest military campaign in U.S. history, said civilian reconstruction efforts in the south and east of the country where off to a slow start while corruption appeared to be growing.
“Many people are asking whether we have the right strategy. Some suggest this is a lost cause,” Kerry, a Democrat, said in his opening statement.
“This is the time to ask hard questions about the progress we are making toward our objectives of defeating al Qaeda and bringing a measure of stability to Afghanistan.”
Holbrooke noted several areas of progress such as agriculture and boosting the power grid. And he suggested Karzai’s efforts to woo Taliban soldiers off the battlefield could carry the seeds of an eventual political solution to the conflict.
Republican Senator Jim DeMint joined several other senators from both political parties voicing concern over Obama’s goal to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011 — a target date DeMint said signaled the United States was not committed to victory in Afghanistan.
“The deadline is defeating us. People know we’re leaving,” DeMint said.
Holbrooke stressed that Obama’s July 2011 target date was merely to begin withdrawals and that any reduction in forces would be dictated by the conditions on the ground.
“It’s quite clear he did not say we’re withdrawing in July 2011. He said we’re beginning withdrawing,” Holbrooke said. adding that this was key to “incentivize” the Kabul government to take charge of its own security.
“An endpoint for combat troop presence has not been decided upon,” Holbrooke said, saying that the Taliban’s links to al Qaeda made it a direct security threat to the United States.
“If we walk away from Afghanistan the way we did 21 years ago, the results will be similarly catastrophic,” he said.
Editing by Eric Beech