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The Inside Scoop on the Congressional Afghanistan Hearing

December 3, 2009

After waiting in line for hours to be the first in the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the Afghanistan war strategy, I can assure you that being close to the action does not make it any more comprehensible. Exciting, yes, but logical, not so much. I’ll admit I was hoping that being mere feet from the distinguished Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defense Gates, and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mullen would somehow increase my chances of making sense of Obama’s Afghanistan surge. (That’s me on the left, by the way.)

In the end, though, I was only convinced that the administration was trying too hard to win over the hearts and minds of Americans without offering a strategy that will work. And if Obama can’t win my heart and mind on this plan to escalate the war to 100,000+ U.S. and NATO troops, how is he going to “win the hearts and minds” of Afghans, as the line goes?

Several things stood out to me as I listened to the witnesses’ testimony before the Committee. I was struck by the way that Mullen and Gates spoke as if this was a brand new war that they were starting “fresh,” as if their enthusiastic focus back on fighting the Taliban was going to “turn things around.” The Republicans in the committee suggested that announcing an 18 month goal to begin withdrawal was giving the Taliban and insurgents notice that they just need to wait the war out. But I can see that everyone is just waiting the U.S. out, whether it’s one year or ten. After all, it is the Afghans’ country, and they will be vested in it long after the U.S. is gone.

Also, I was dismayed at the lip-service paid to civilian components of Obama’s plan, because I know that local development and civil society initiatives would be the most helpful parts of the strategy, as all three of Obama’s top aides emphasized. Yet, Clinton proudly proclaimed that they would be tripling the number of coalition civilian personnel on the ground in Afghanistan to…wait for it…974!! Wow, 100,000 soldiers and less than 1,000 civilians–if they can find that many who speak local languages and can do the critical work that’s needed in agriculture and governance. That sounds like making a “civilian surge” a priority.

Being interested in regional initiatives and diplomacy in the middle east, I was quite distressed that there was little concern with promoting engagement of Afghanistan’s neighbors. Of course, there was patronizing banter about making sure Pakistan behaves, but the question of whether the U.S. would promote peaceful dialogue between Pakistan and India was shirked. Additionally, Iran was briefly mentioned as “not a player” at the moment in Afghanistan, with the suggestion that Iran could become problematic for the U.S.’s interests. This indicated to me that the administration is not looking hard enough at the opportunity to build regional peace through engagement with Iran.

Lastly, I felt that Gates and Clinton were backpedaling significantly on Obama’s promise to withdraw soon–qualifying the 18 month mark as merely a beginning of a transition–and they more or less indicated that if there is still no U.S. confidence in the Afghan security forces at that time that the U.S. would not leave. Given their aim to construct an army and police of 400,000 Afghans from thin air, I’m afraid it could be long after Obama’s term before the U.S. gets out of Afghanistan.

Not a lot to be optimistic about in the hearing, but it was still a thrill to see the key policymakers in action at this historic time. Sitting just behind Hillary Clinton for those two hours reminded me that FCNL is in a position to make the Quaker voice for peace heard on Capitol Hill. (Check out Matt eying Rep. Ackerman, before he makes his move and shakes hands with Secretary Clinton.)

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