Senators urging new war strategy
Delegation talks on Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan — A bipartisan Senate delegation on Tuesday called for more U.S. troops and more aggressive American military action in Afghanistan, as well as pressure on neighboring Pakistan, saying the United States needs “a winning strategy” to end the 16-year war and prevent the spread of terrorism.
“We are united in our concern that the present situation in Afghanistan is not on a course for success. We need to change that quickly,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a news conference at NATO and U.S. military headquarters in the Afghan capital at the end of a three-day visit to the region.
“America is the strongest nation on earth,” but “we are not winning, and obviously we need a new strategy to win,” McCain said. “We are frustrated that this strategy has not been articulated yet.”
The senators also issued a warning to President Donald Trump to fill vacant embassy and State Department positions in order to better address the country’s mounting military and political crises.
Trump’s administration has been working for several months on a new policy for the war-torn region, where U.S. and Afghan forces have been fighting insurgents for 16 years. But the plans have been delayed by internal debates, and both
Afghanistan and Pakistan have faced a renewed rash of suicide bombings and insurgent attacks.
Both McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who visited Pakistan and Afghanistan this week with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and two other committee members, said they planned to carry a message back to Trump that he needs to adopt a bold military plan for the region but also complement it with a strong and informed diplomatic policy.
“If we leave radical Islam alone, we will not be safe at home,” Graham said. He said he plans to tell the president that “he needs to pull all our troops out,” or add even more than the 3,000 to 4,000 troops that U.S. military officials have asked for, to turn the current military “stalemate into a success.”
The U.S. delegation voiced what has been a concern for months now in the absence of a permanent U.S. ambassador. The civilian diplomatic mission in Kabul has been led by a charge d’affaires, Hugo Llorens, who was called in from imminent retirement to help as a stopgap during a time when the Afghan government has faced political storms.
Graham also said that “throwing more bombs” is not enough and that the Trump administration needs to put more effort into understanding and influencing regional leaders. “Rex Tillerson needs to come here quick,” he said, referring to the secretary of state, who has not yet visited the region.
Many Afghan and U.S. experts have said Washington needs to provide more political support to the faltering Afghan government and to the stalled peace process, rather than relying on a mainly military policy.
Graham described the lack of diplomatic focus as unnerving and called on the administration to appoint someone “to manage this portfolio” as well as fill many of the vacant positions in the State Department dealing with South and Central Asia.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said the military had expressed concern about “the hollowing out of the State Department.”
The issue is again highlighting the U.S. military’s outsize role in Afghanistan, with U.S. commanders even shouldering some of the diplomatic efforts around the country.
Pentagon officials have hinted that the new strategy will not put a timeline on the increased military presence, essentially drawing the U.S. into another prolonged chapter of the war.
“The political patience at home will depend on the clear articulation of a strategy going forward,” Warren said. “We need a strategy in the United States that defines our role in Afghanistan, defines our objective and explains
how we are going to get from here to there.”
The U.S. diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan in recent years have been criticized for the turnover rate. Most of the midranking diplomats serve only one-year terms, and by the time they understand the complexity of the place, they are already headed for their next assignments.
The concern has grown in recent months as many of the senior positions in the State Department dealing with regional policy remain vacant, and the position of special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan was recently scrapped.
The role of the U.S. ambassador to Kabul has been particularly crucial in the past two years, as the coalition government brokered by former Secretary of State John Kerry has required constant hand-holding and mediation.
The coalition partners, President Ashraf Ghani and the government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, have struggled to see eye to eye on issues, throwing the government into long periods of stagnation during a Taliban resurgence.
Taliban insurgents have maintained a steady pace of attacks on major urban centers, including Kabul, and they now control or influence more than 40 percent of the nation’s territory.
Afghanistan’s acting minister of defense, Maj. Gen. Tariq Shah Bahrami, said
Tuesday at a news conference that there was fighting in 21 of the country’s 34 provinces, and that government forces were facing “fierce fighting” in seven of those provinces.
Heavy fighting continued for a third day on the outskirts of Kunduz, a city the Taliban overran twice in one year. Afghan forces were trying to clear Taliban checkpoints on the highway connecting Kunduz to Kabul.
The strategy advocated by U.S. military officials in Afghanistan, who hosted the senators’ visit, would add several thousand U.S. troops, along with a similar number from NATO countries. They would focus on building a large Afghan special operations force and beefing up the Afghan air force.
Graham said he was impressed with a newly named group of Afghan military officials, saying they had “cleaned house” and moved to make needed changes. The Afghan defense forces have been criticized for widespread corruption, poor leadership and high rates of desertion.
The delegation, which also included Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., toured U.S. military facilities in Afghanistan on Monday, bestowed promotional medals on seven U.S. service members at a ceremony Tuesday, and attended a Fourth of July barbecue with U.S. troops.
McCain said the group was only partly satisfied with its visit to Pakistan, which included a military tour of North Waziristan, the tribal region along the Afghan border where the army drove out Islamist militant groups in 2014 and 2015. They said they questioned Pakistani army officials about continued allegations of support for the militant Haqqani network.
“We told them the Haqqanis have a safe zone there, and that is not acceptable,” McCain said. “They said they had taken some measures, but we made it clear we expect them to help and cooperate against the Haqqani group and others.”
Pakistan has repeatedly denied harboring the Haqqanis or other extremist militias, but both Afghan and U.S. officials believe those groups are responsible for a number of deadly attacks in Afghanistan. Pakistan and the United States have a long history of security ties, but Pakistan supported Taliban rulers there until it faced U.S. pressure to abandon them.
Despite the urgent tone of the senators’ remarks, McCain predicted that the conflict in Afghanistan would continue “on a low-burning simmer for a long time to come.” He reiterated that only an aggressive U.S. effort to bolster Afghan military actions would force the Taliban to negotiate. “That won’t happen unless they feel they are losing,” he said.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, flanked by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Lindsey Graham, speaks Tuesday during a news conference at the Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. “America is the strongest nation on earth,” but “we are not winning, and obviously we need a new strategy to win,” McCain said of the 16-year war in Afghanistan.