The Obama administration's latest strategy review on the war in Afghanistan has, in general, drawn praise from government officials, military leaders and lawmakers from both parties. Some of that praise is, however, well seasoned with concerns, and at least one lawmaker thinks the administration's approach is off the mark.
President Obama was himself cautious in his assessment of the review.
This continues to be a very difficult endeavor, he said Thursday. But I can report that thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians on the ground, we are on track to achieve our goals.
After reminding everyone why we are in Afghanistan -- mentioning not only the 9/11 attacks, but other terrorist actions originating in the Afghan-Pakistan border region - the Commander-in-Chief said the U.S. mission is making significant progress and Al Qaeda is hunkered down.
But progress comes slowly and at a very high price in the lives and in many places, the gains we've made are still fragile and reversible, Obama said.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking today from Kabul, hailed the report, saying the coalition of the U.S. and its allies now has the right strategy backed by the right resources to succeed.
Mullen said the training of Afghan security forces is key to continued success. He noted that Afghanistan has 70,000 more soldiers and police than it had a year ago, and the country is well on its way to reaching its goal of fielding more than 310,000 security forces.
The more that Afghans see their troops in the neighborhood and their troops in the lead, the more their faith in government will be restored and the more their loyalty to that government will be secured, Mullen said.
But Mullen touched upon an area of prime concern for many military and civilian officials.
Safe haven in Pakistan continue to allow al-Qaida and other extremists the opportunity to train and equip, Mullen said. And we know very well that they are using these havens to attack Afghan forces, as well as our own.
Obama called upon Pakistan to continue its operations against the Taliban in the border region, and Mullen said the Pakistanis have pledged to do so. But there is uncertainty about what Pakistan can and will do.
While the Pakistani government has made important strides at great cost to combat terrorists who threaten Pakistan, Taliban fighters who attack U.S. and NATO personnel, as well as our Afghan and Indian partners, still have safe havens in Pakistan, said Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, who for the most part praised the progress the U.S. military is making.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates addressed the issue of border sanctuaries.
Though we believe the Pakistanis can and must do more to shut down the flow of insurgents across the border, it is important to remember that these kinds of military operations in the tribal areas would have been considered unthinkable just two years ago. And the Pakistani military has simultaneously been contending with the historic flooding that has devastated much of the country, Gates said.
But Rep. Jane Harman, D-CA, who chairs a subcommittee on Intelligence, asked whether our current policy could ever persuade the Pakistanis to abandon support for Taliban safe havens as well as fix their own corruption and taxation problems?
Harman, noting that she has traveled twice to the region, said she did not believe the current counter-insurgency strategy will succeed.
And I believe its cost in lives and revenue is unsustainable, she said.
Harman questioned whether our military surge stops Al Qaeda worldwide, which may be using our military successes in Afghanistan to recruit fighters against us.
Harman, McCain and others also questioned if we will ever be able to curb the corruption of the Karzai administration.
While the U.S. and its allies continues to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, we may not be giving sufficient attention to growing threats in Yemen, the Maghreb and in our own communities, Harman said.
McCain lauded the tone the review and the administration are taking on a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
I am also pleased that the eventual transition to Afghan leadership on security issues is increasingly understood as a process that is focused on 2014, and is based on conditions on the ground, he said.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-CT, spoke of strategic patience regarding withdrawal.
As we look ahead, any withdrawals should be based on the professional military recommendation of General Petraeus and conditions on the ground, Lieberman said. We must be very careful not to 'rush to failure' in Afghanistan.
But Congresswoman Harman took a different tack.
We need a clear public timetable to end our military mission in Afghanistan responsibly and soon, she said.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, who presumably read the same report that McCain and Lieberman did, said he was pleased to hear that we remain on track for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next summer.
Cardin said that, despite the good news on the surge, he remains concerned about the lack of development of political and civilian milestones.
I intend to hold the administration to their word and ensure that we bring our troops home in a timely and honorable manner, beginning next summer, Cardin said.
But Rep. John Boehner, R-OH, who will be Speaker of the House in the upcoming 112th Congress, stressed the position, held by many lawmakers from both parties and military leaders, that strict timetables for troop withdrawals are the wrong way to go.
As the Administration's review notes, the gains are 'fragile and reversible' and we must remain steadfast in our commitment to the counterinsurgency strategy our commanders on the ground have put in place and to ensuring its success, rather than focusing on meeting arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal, Boehner said. :Any drawdown of U.S. troops must be based on the conditions on the ground, not on political promises.
The death toll for Americans in the Afghan War, from 2001 to the present , is 1,437. The cost in dollars in $190 billion.