Holbrooke, grilled by senators, stresses urgency of link between Afghanistan and Pakistan

By Will Storey

“All sacrifices are going to be irrelevant if we do not have the right strategy,” said Senator John Kerry (D-MA) during his opening remarks to the Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. The committee met to discuss the governance and civilian strategy of the war in Afghanistan, and put Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke in the hot seat. Senator Kerry’s concerns were echoed by a number of other committee members.

Problems such as widespread corruption and misuse of foreign aid, mistrust of the U.S. forces, and renewed violence in places like Kandahar and Marja drew both criticisms and concerns from the committee. The principle complaint was voiced by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN). After one hour and ten minutes of testimony from Holbrooke, Senator Corker informed the committee that he had heard nothing concrete regarding specific objectives or what success in the region would look like. To the hearing room packed with people, and to those who failed to find space waiting in the hall, he referred to the meeting as “an incredible waste of time.”

Several Senators expressed apprehension toward President Obama’s July 2011 withdrawal date, conveying that such a plan of action shows a lack of commitment to the Afghan people and an opportunity for the insurgents. Holbrooke responded to these remarks by explaining that troops will begin to depart in July of next year, but the “size and scope” of that withdrawal will be adjusted according to the situation on the ground. Senators Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Bob Casey (D-PA) stressed the issue of improvised explosive devices (I.E.D.s), and probed Holbrooke on what was being done to compel Pakistan to regulate ammonium nitrate (AN), the principle ingredient in many such devices. Afghanistan prohibited use of AN outside of mining facilities earlier this year.

There have been, according to Holbrooke, significant, measurable improvements in both strategy and accomplishments on the ground. Problems are now being identified and handled with “strong civilian and military coordination” between numerous agencies ranging from AID to the FBI. Specifically, American efforts have made advancements in the agriculture, GDP (which, says Holbrooke, went up 22% last year), and counter-narcotics tactics of Afghanistan. The recently announced program for reintegration of Taliban militants, he explained, is “the most important new development” in American strategy, and the key to finding a peaceful resolution. He repeatedly stated that the fate of Afghanistan is inherently tied to that of Pakistan. Because of their shared border and the high frequency with which anti-American militants are trained in Pakistan, the U.S. cannot succeed in one without solving the problems of the other.

All parties at the hearing generally concluded, and Holbrooke emphatically reiterated, that resolution of the conflict lies in the hands of the Afghan people and not foreign soldiers. The upcoming Kabul Conference on July 20 should be the largest meeting of foreign representatives since the 1970s, and will specifically address the issue of turning over the effort to the Afghan government. One of the biggest obstacles facing the war effort, he said, is the “extraordinary…absence of capacity to get qualified Afghans.”

While he remained ambivalent on the overall progress of the war, he expressed optimism in regards to the reintegration program and said in reference to the new commander of NATO forces: “I’ve known a lot of four star generals in my career, and none is better than David Petraeus.”

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