WASHINGTON — Democratic and Republican senators voiced deep concern Wednesday over the direction of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, questioning whether the Obama administration can begin withdrawing U.S. troops next summer and worrying that it lacks a plan for forging a political settlement.
"We need a better definition of exactly what the definition of success is in Afghanistan," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass, said in opening a hearing at which U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke was grilled on U.S. policy. "We absolutely need to know what a political solution looks like and how we get there."
The hearing came as the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan reported the deaths of eight U.S. soldiers over a 24-hour period in the south, bringing to 33 the number of American troops killed this month amid the worst bloodshed of the nearly nine-year conflict. There are currently some 100,000 U.S. troops there.
U.S. commanders have warned that casualties would rise as 30,000 additional U.S. troops arrive as part of a drive to clear the Taliban strongholds of southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces and build local governments capable of commanding popular support.
The war's growing human and fiscal costs, however, are adding to the political pressure on Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike, many facing re-election in November.
Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, said he worries that despite the U.S. troop surge, the force won't be sufficient to pacify the city of Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual capital, the next key goal of the U.S.-led counter-insurgency drive that began in the Helmand hamlet of Marjah in February.
"Prior to American troops announcing they were going to go in (to Kandahar), there were not assassinations. There was not a level of violence," Kerry said. "The mere announcement has now brought on the process of assassination and intimidation, and I doubt that we are going to have enough troops to be able to . . . pacify the city."
Kerry said he was "unsure" of the U.S. strategy for Kandahar, and asked Holbrooke "if you can help us understand exactly where we're heading in this regard?"
Holbrooke declined to answer, but he disclosed that the new commander of the U.S.-led international force, Army Gen. David Petraeus, is now conducting "his own strategic review," indicating that the scope and schedule for the operation — which has been slowed by fighting, weak local support and poor Afghan administrative abilities — could be changed.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the panel's senior Republican, said there is "substantial concern" about the course of the war in part due to the "disruption" caused by President Barack Obama's firing last month of Petraeus' predecessor, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, over an magazine interview.
Moreover, Lugar said, improvements in governance, aid programs, the training of Afghan security forces and "other areas have not occurred at a pace that boosts confidence in President Obama's original timetable."
"Absent a major re-alignment on the ground, it's unrealistic to expect a significant downsizing of U.S. forces could occur without security consequences," he continued, referring to Obama's December announcement that U.S. forces would begin turning over areas deemed stable to the Afghan government in July 2011, and start returning home.
"The lack of clarity in Afghanistan does not end with the president's timetable," Lugar said. "Both civilian and military operations in Afghanistan are proceeding without a clear definition of success."
Holbrooke insisted that the deadline was being misconstrued as the start of a wholesale U.S. departure. "An endpoint for combat troop presence has not been decided upon," he said, adding that the pace of withdrawals would depend on ground conditions.
Holbrooke's testimony came a week before a major conference in Kabul at which Afghan President Hamid Karzai is to detail his plans for accelerating security, anti-corruption efforts, governance and economic and social programs.
Other Democrats and Republicans joined Kerry and Lugar in questioning whether the administration has a plan to reconcile the feuds dividing Afghanistan's warring factions and bring enough stability to permit U.S. troops to withdraw from the longest war in American history.
"I've been here for an hour and 10 minutes. I've heard nothing, nothing, about that," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "I'm not hearing anything that talks about where we are going."
Holbrooke defended the civilian side of the U.S. counter-insurgency drive, saying that building Afghanistan's agricultural sector, legal system, governance capabilities and infrastructure are elements of the wider effort to prevent the country from reverting to a Taliban-run sanctuary from which al Qaida can launch new strikes on the United States.
"I still don't understand," Corker replied after Holbrooke finished. "Explain to us what the end state is, what we can envision Afghanistan being when this withdrawal takes place."
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