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Cause for Concern in Afghanistan

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There is substantial concern about our course in Afghanistan, in part because of the recent disruption in our military leadership, but also because gains in governance, development, military training, and other areas have not occurred at a pace that boosts confidence in President Obama's original timetable. Some security improvements have been achieved and more are likely to follow, but they have been hard won. In six months, the president expects a review by his commanders on the status of our efforts in Afghanistan. This review presumably would determine the shape of an expected transition of responsibilities to Afghan security forces in July 2011. But absent a major realignment on the ground, it is unrealistic to expect that a significant downsizing of U.S. forces could occur at that time without security consequences. This conclusion is reinforced by recent GAO and Inspector General reports that have raised deep concerns over the viability and quality of training for the Afghan National Army and police.

The lack of clarity in Afghanistan does not end with the president's timetable. Both civilian and military operations in Afghanistan are proceeding without a clear definition of success. There has been much discussion of our counter-insurgency strategy and methods, but very little explanation of what metrics must be achieved before the country is considered secure.

At some moments it appears as if we are trying to remake the economic, political, and security culture of Afghanistan. We should know by now that such grand ambitions are beyond our resources and powers. At other moments, it appears we are content with a narrow, security-driven definition of success: preventing an implacably hostile Taliban regime from taking over the government and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist safe haven, regardless of what government is in power.

But even if this narrow definition of success were embraced by the Obama administration, it would require amplification. How much Taliban military capability and territorial control is tolerable? What are we currently doing in Afghanistan that is not required to achieve this narrow objective? What are reasonable mileposts for judging progress towards success? What time constraints do we perceive, given resource and alliance pressures? How do dynamics in Pakistan factor into our strategy in Afghanistan?

I recognize that the situation in Afghanistan is fluid and not easily defined. I also understand why an administration would not want to be pinned down to a specific definition of success. The problem is that we are expending enormous resources in Afghanistan. Our resources are finite, and they must be focused effectively. We need to know if some missions that currently are receiving resources are not intrinsic to our objectives. We also need to know what missions are absolutely indispensible to success, however it is defined. We can't fall back on measuring our military and civilian activities in Afghanistan according to relative progress. Arguably we could make progress for decades on security, employment, good governance, women's rights and other goals - expending billions of dollars each year -- without ever reaching a satisfying conclusion. In such circumstances, avoiding mission creep toward unattainable goals is essential.

Given this situation, it is reasonable to consider the enlistment of local militias in security operations under the authority of the Ministry of Interior or Defense. This tactic has been frequently debated, and may not be applicable in all cases. But since his arrival in Kabul, General Petraeus appears inclined to explore it. This decision is a difficult one, given Afghanistan's history of conflict under warlords. As such, local militias are best integrated within a longer-term institutionalization plan for such forces.

President Karzai presented a draft Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program to NATO for consideration. The issues of reconciliation and reintegration are now in broad discussion. The Committee would welcome some remarks on the status of the draft program and its elements, as well as the position of our government toward it. Who is participating and leading the coordination of such discussions with the Afghan government and groups seeking reconciliation?

I am hopeful that the administration will not wait six months to refine its explanation of our goals in Afghanistan. It is up to the president to define success, and delineate how much time and how many resources should be devoted to achieving it.

I appreciate Ambassador Holbrooke's willingness to join us today, and I look forward to our discussion.

Please visit my Afghanistan page for more.