Se­na­tors urg­ing new war strat­egy

Del­e­ga­tion talks on Afghanistan

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Pamela Con­sta­ble of The Wash­ing­ton Post and by Mujib Mashal, Jawad Sukhan­yar and Na­jim Rahim of The New York Times.

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 AT­TACKS

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.

AP/RAHMAT GUL

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.

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