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Establishing Clear Goals May Prove Key to New Afghan-Pakistan Strategy

April 1, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Gen. David Petraeus testified before a Senate panel Wednesday about the Obama administration's new strategy for the Afghan-Pakistan region. Sens. Carl Levin and Susan Collins give their perspectives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congress begins to look at the Obama administration’s new plans for the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Jeffrey Brown has that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Senate Armed Services Committee was the first congressional venue for the administration to test its new strategy. Senators had plenty of concerns, mixed with praise, for the administration’s proposals.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina put this series of questions to General David Petraeus, the regional commander, and Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: From the 30,000-foot level here, General Petraeus, due to the success in Iraq, would you now consider Afghanistan the central front in the war on terror?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, commander, U.S. Central Command: I think you’d have to take Afghanistan and Pakistan together…

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: OK, those two together.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: … as a problem set, those two together, yes, sir.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: And you would consider that now the central front?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: In fact, our focus is truly shifting to that front.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Is it fair to say, General Petraeus, that the American public can expect casualties to go up this year in Afghanistan, that there will be more fighting?

And, Madam Secretary, can American taxpayers expect that the expense of operations in Afghanistan will dramatically increase in terms of dollars to be appropriated?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Senator, I think that Vice President Biden had it exactly right when, after his last trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said that this is going to get harder before it gets easier.

MICHELE FLOURNOY, undersecretary of Defense for Policy: Senator, I would say, there will be higher human costs and higher financial costs to this effort, that those facts were considered very carefully before the president made his decision. And we’re going forward with this strategy because we believe that it’s vital to the safety and security of the American people.

Skepticism of Pakistani cooperation

JEFFREY BROWN: Flournoy helped President Obama craft the new plan, which was announced last Friday.

Increasing security in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is central to the strategy, but several senators remained skeptical of Pakistan's commitment to take on the Taliban. Democrat Jim Webb of Virginia.

SEN. JAMES WEBB, D-Va.: I'm a little concerned with how we're going to pull this off with respect to cooperation in Pakistan, whether there really is a true incentive at the right levels in a Pakistani government and military to strongly cooperate with NATO in this effort.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Senator, I think it is an open question. I think we need to test the proposition. And I think one of the things that is changing in the Pakistan context is the degree to which the threat is manifesting itself within Pakistan at a level that is really affecting public attitudes, that is affecting leadership attitudes, et cetera.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama also called for 4,000 more U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces on top of the 17,000 already requested.

Republican Susan Collins of Maine asked how the American people would know if they're winning the war.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: How will you know whether or not this new strategy is working? It seems to me that you need a set of clear benchmarks, clear metrics, going in.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: I think we have some very broad metrics. On the Pakistani side, looking at measures of their cooperation on the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism fight, as well as in terms of support for other common objectives.

I think on the Afghan side, there are a whole host -- much more developed set of inherited metrics, given that we've been conducting these operations for a long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: General Petraeus acknowledged the challenges ahead and the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: The surge in Iraq, logistically, was a miracle of modern military activities, but it was a surge that was only 30,000-plus-thousand on top of what was already 133,000-or-something-thousand in a country that had a great deal of infrastructure.

In Afghanistan, we're pushing over 30,000 in, more than doubling it in a country that does not have the infrastructure, and so the absorption is a big challenge. And that is one reason that we have to space this out and we have to build this up.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama is expected to press NATO allies for a larger commitment at their summit this weekend.

Fighting the Taliban

Sen. Susan Collins
It troubles me that the administration has committed troops and is coming to Congress for additional resources without having a clear set of benchmarks for evaluating whether or not this strategy is working.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on all of this, we turn to two committee members, Chairman Carl Levin, Democrat from Michigan, and Maine Republican Susan Collins.

Well, Senator Levin, this was a very serious message you heard today. General Petraeus referred to the growing threat to the, quote, "very existence of Pakistan." How dire do you see the situation? What do you tell your constituents?

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich.: Well, the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, but there's some real hope in Afghanistan. Some of the things that have happened recently are pluses. There's a greater emphasis now on training the Afghan army.

The Afghan army is highly motivated against the Taliban. There's no division among the people of Afghanistan about the Taliban. They detest them. It has something like 5 percent support in Afghanistan.

So the Taliban cannot be allowed to take over Afghanistan or else it will become again the training ground for the people who attacked us. That's where the attacks began; that's where the training took place before 9/11.

And so it's very much in our interest that we focus on al-Qaida and that we not allow the people who harbored al-Qaida in Afghanistan to take control. And there's some solid evidence that we can make some real progress in Afghanistan.

One of the great threats, however, to Afghanistan is an open border with Pakistan and Pakistan's unwillingness or inability to stop the religious fanatics, the religious extremists who crossed that border from Pakistan into Afghanistan, and that is causing a great deal of problems in Afghanistan.

And, frankly, I don't have a lot of confidence that the Pakistan government is willing to stop that flow of those religious extremists across that border down in the south.

JEFFREY BROWN: Senator Collins, we heard you raise this question as you look at the new strategy of benchmarks. How do we know if we're winning? How do we know how it's going? Were you satisfied with the response? Tell us more about what your concerns are.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: That is the fundamental question. We need to be able to assess whether this new strategy, which includes the considerable build-up of American troops, plus a stronger diplomatic and economic effort, we need to be able to assess whether it's working.

And it troubles me that the administration has committed troops and is coming to Congress for additional resources without having a clear set of benchmarks for evaluating whether or not this strategy is working.

That's a mistake that our government made in Iraq, until General Petraeus took over and until we had a different strategy and clear benchmarks to measure its success.

I don't think we should repeat that mistake. Before building up our troops, I think we not only need to have clear goals, but we need to have a clear set of measurements to assess whether or not it's working.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that connected, Senator Collins -- we heard this exchange with Senator Graham about the costs. Do you think what you're asking about, benchmarks, is connected to this question of to the extent that Americans are prepared for costs in terms of lives and casualties and dollars spent?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: I'm very concerned about the cost to our country. Obviously, the sacrifices of our soldiers are foremost in my mind, but there's also a financial cost, as well.

One of the troubling aspects of this to me is it is supposed to be a NATO operation, and yet it seems to me that it's always the American troops that are bearing the brunt of the fighting.

Other countries are contributing, and there are some exceptions, for example, the British and the Canadians.

But by and large, our NATO allies are not stepping up to perform combat roles. And they are also imposing severe restrictions, caveats on the ability of their troops to participate. I think we're too quick to build up our troops, and that takes pressure off our NATO allies.

Need for clear benchmarks

Sen. Carl Levin
What the new administration has done is it has changed the strategy to be much more focused on al-Quaida, the people who attacked us, to be much more focused on a build-up of the Afghanistan national army.

JEFFREY BROWN: Senator Levin, what do you think about whether the American people are ready for some of the costs coming in and the benchmark questions that Senator Collins raised?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, clearly, there need to be benchmarks. There have been general benchmarks. We had a significant number of troops in Afghanistan before the new administration came to office.

What the new administration has done is it has changed the strategy to be much more focused on al-Qaida, the people who attacked us, to be much more focused on a build-up of the Afghanistan national army, because that is an Army which is motivated to go after the Taliban and al-Qaida.

And so the strategy is much more focused, and that's the way it needs to be. The benchmarks, which Senator Collins very correctly talks about -- indeed, we all did -- are being refined now by an interagency group. But they have existed in a general sense when we started the Afghanistan effort.

Those benchmarks include trying to secure the areas outside of not just in the capital, but outside of the capital, and also involve the growth of the Afghanistan army. We need to see that grow much faster so that they can take responsibility for their own security.

And it also includes some important economic benchmarks. We have, for instance, in Afghanistan now what's called a national solidarity program. This is a wonderful program, which in thousands and thousands of villages, with very few dollars, is giving those villagers the opportunity to make decisions as to whether they want to use the few dollars that they're getting for a new water system or a new school. So we need to make economic progress, as well.

But I think, if we do nothing, if we just let this thing drift and not follow the recommendations of our commanders for more troops, that we're going to have greater losses than we would if we made these decisions and commitments now.

Finally, on NATO, I agree with Senator Collins. I believe, except for those few countries, that the NATO effort has been feeble. They've made commitments that they haven't kept. And we not only need benchmarks in terms of Afghanistan and Pakistan; we need NATO to adopt some benchmarks for carrying out their own commitments.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask, Senator Collins, are you suggesting that we should not commit these troops until we have the benchmarks more in place?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: That would have been my preference. First thing that the administration did was to commit 17,000 additional combat troops before it had completed its review, which has led to this new strategy.

That review was needed. I give the administration credit for devising a new strategy, but I thought it was putting the commitment of the troops before completion of the strategy.

Now there is a strategy, and 4,000 additional troops are going to be committed, but before we have the benchmarks.

There are some general benchmarks, as Chairman Levin has mentioned, but I want to see very specific benchmarks. For example, in the area of economic support, we should be looking at, how many farmers have we converted from growing poppy to growing alternative crops? We should be looking at convictions for corruption. We should be looking at other measures of economic progress.

On the defense side, I think the administration needs to embrace a more ambitious goal for increasing the size of the Afghan army. I don't think the size that they are looking at is sufficient, and most military experts with whom I've consulted has reached that conclusion, as well.

So I'd like to see a series of benchmarks for the training of the Afghan army and increasing the size by certain dates. I want to see far more specificity.

Intelligence lapses in Pakistan

Sen. Susan Collins
I'm very concerned about repeated reports that members of the Pakistani military intelligence agencies are actually helping support the Taliban in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Senator Levin, let me come back to you briefly on something you raised earlier, which is about Pakistan and some doubts you raised about their commitment to fighting the Taliban in their own country and on the borders. Flesh out your concern a little bit more for us there.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: We've seen too much evidence of collusion between some of the elements of the Pakistan intelligence units with the Taliban. We've seen deals made between the Pakistan government and the Taliban in a number of areas inside of Pakistan.

We've seen a failure of will on the part of the Pakistan leadership too often to take on the religious extremists in their midst. And it's essential that they do that, not because we're pressuring them to do that. It can't be us that are buying their support for their own stability.

It's got to be their decision as to whether or not they are willing to take on forces in their country, which are going to destroy their country if they don't take them on. But they've got to make that decision.

And before we provide support to Pakistan, be it financial or more military aid, it seems to me that we should determine whether or not their goals are the same as ours, in terms of taking on the religious extremists or whether we're going to be perceived as trying to buy something that they wouldn't do themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask for a brief final word from Senator Collins on that issue. A big issue for you, too?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: It is, and Senator Levin is exactly right. I'm very concerned about repeated reports that members of the Pakistani military intelligence agencies are actually helping support the Taliban in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.

This is a threat not just to our security and to the security of Afghanistan and the entire region. It is a threat to the very existence of the Pakistani government. So that government needs to make a firm choice, and I am willing to give them lots of aid if they make the right choice.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Senator Susan Collins and Carl Levin, thank you both very much.


SEN. CARL LEVIN: Thank you.