Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 23 pressed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Obama administration plans to accelerate the US military drawdown in Afghanistan.
US President Barack Obama announced June 22 that a phased withdrawal of 10,000 US troops will be completed by the end of the year. Another 20,000 American soldiers are slated to depart by the end of 2012, leaving 60,000 American troops. NATO decided last November that all foreign troops should be out of Afghanistan by 2014.
For more than two hours during a committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Clinton and senators debated the wisdom of an accelerated drawdown.
In his opening remarks, Chairman John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, said that, by hastening the withdrawal, President Obama “kept a commitment he made to the American people.” Kerry argued that Osama bin Laden’s death last month and other developments meant that “we have met our major goals in Afghanistan” as defined by the administration.
Kerry praised the administration for its “surge” decision, which he argued has established a “position of strength” from which to transition the lead war effort to the Afghan government. Since “no number of troops” can achieve a military victory, “now is the time to work with the parties and all of the neighbors to find the political solution to this conflict.”
Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the committee, urged the administration adopt a “more narrow definition of success in Afghanistan” since, “viewed in a broader strategic context,” the current level of effort in that country—nearly 100,000 troops and $100 billion each year”—was disproportionate given its limited relative “strategic value” to the United States.
Secretary Clinton reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to pursuing “our three-track strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” She argued that the recent improvement in the military situation would not have been possible without a corresponding improvement in the civilian and diplomatic surge. Although Clinton acknowledged that “many challenges” remain, she insisted that “life is better for most Afghans.”
Several senators pressed Clinton on what the secretary herself described as the “many failings” of the Afghan government headed by President Hamid Karzai. They noted the difficulties it created for what Clinton described as transitioning “from short-term stabilization projects, largely as part of the military strategy, to longer-term sustainable development that focuses on spurring growth and integrating Afghanistan into South Central Asia’s economy.”
Much of the discussion focused on the role of Pakistan in the conflict. Comparing the two countries, Kerry said that “in many ways the Afghanistan war is a sideshow to the main event … next door.”
Clinton said on a recent visit to Islamabad that “in diplo-speak” she engaged in “very candid discussions” making clear US “expectations” regarding Pakistani politics.
The secretary of state argued one way to solve Afghanistan’s “Rubik’s Cube of diplomatic and political complexity” might be an arrangement like the “Congress of Vienna,” which reassured all regional stakeholders that their interests would be protected. The 1815 Congress of Vienna led to the establishment of a lasting balance of power in Europe following the upheaval generated by the Napoleonic Wars.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.