Obama Must Define Afghan War Goals, Senators Tell Holbrooke

Senators concerned about the direction of American efforts in Afghanistan said President Barack Obama and his officials need to define U.S. objectives there before a planned 2011 drawdown of troops.

Republican and Democratic senators told Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, at a hearing yesterday that they don’t understand how progress on civilian projects is being measured or how they would back military aims.

“We need a better definition of exactly what success is in Afghanistan,” said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Senator John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “We absolutely need to understand what the political situation is and how we get there.”

The committee’s hearing, which focused on the civilian development plan in Afghanistan, comes before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to the July 20 Kabul Conference. At that gathering, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to present plans for strengthening governance and accountability, the rule of law, and social and economic development.

U.S., Afghan and allied forces are trying to degrade the Taliban militia in its southern Afghanistan stronghold while building up the Karzai government’s ability to secure the country.

Yesterday Karzai and his National Security Council announced their endorsement of a U.S.-backed plan to set up local police forces, according to a statement from Karzai’s office. The police would report to the Interior Ministry and work in remote areas where villagers aren’t able to defend themselves.

Rule of Law

To help improve the rule of law, all militias operating outside the Interior Ministry will be gradually disbanded and incorporated into the Local Police Forces when and where necessary, the statement said.

As senators pushed Holbrooke on a date for the end of U.S. involvement, the veteran diplomat said Afghanistan will need support even after troops leave as the impoverished nation builds its economy and security apparatus.

Holbrooke cautioned against a rush for the exits. “There’s a direct correlation between Afghanistan, Pakistan and our homeland security,” Holbrooke said. “I’m very leery of setting an endpoint.”

The envoy pointed to projects on agricultural production and the reduction of opium poppy production. He also noted a major effort to wire areas such as Kandahar for electricity.

Seeking Benchmarks

Senators from both parties pushed Holbrooke to give them benchmarks for the civilian efforts in Afghanistan and to say how and when the U.S. could leave.

“I just don’t hear any clarity,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a Republican. “I have no earthly idea what our objectives are on the civilian front.”

Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar said he had little confidence about progress before July 2011. “Absent a major realignment on the ground, it’s unrealistic to expect that a significant downsizing of U.S. forces could occur at that time without security consequences,” he said.

Holbrooke told senators that the July 2011 date wasn’t a deadline for troop withdrawals and instead marked the beginning of departures. “And they will begin,” Holbrooke said, depending on what Obama hears from his generals about security conditions.

“If we walk away from Afghanistan as we did 20 years ago, the consequences will be catastrophic,” Holbrooke said, referring to the end of U.S. support for Afghanistan during its battle to end Soviet occupation.

“I hope when we talk about end-state, we talk about a sustainable end-state which includes continued American economic and development assistance,” Holbrooke said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Washington at ngaouette@bloomberg.net.

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