WASHINGTON (CN) – As President Barack Obama decides whether to send more soldiers to Afghanistan, experts testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday said such a move would backfire and advised largely against it. As one expert put it, “There is no possible way for the United States to supply enough troops to pacify the situation.”
General Stanley McChrystal, NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan, has requested 40,000 additional American troops, but Obama has hesitated and may be considering other options.
There are roughly 62,000 American troops already in Afghanistan. But a question quickly arose over whether the United States has already achieved its goal.
Obama has said the goal in Afghanistan is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.”
“I think we’ve achieved it,” said Milton Bearden, a retired Central Intelligence Agency officer, referring to the al Qaeda organization of Arab fighters, in contrast to the more home-grown, fundamentalist Taliban.
From another witness’s perspective, Afghanistan has been a losing battle for many years, with a permanent Taliban presence now in 70 percent of the country, up from last year’s 60 percent.
And former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi, said she thinks the objective of the United States is now “the avoidance of defeat.”
Massachusetts Democratic Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, John Kerry, agreed with Bearden that al Qaeda isn’t in Afghanistan anymore, but questioned if the United States has achieved its goal. He said the United States might want to keep a presence in Afghanistan in order to keep al Qaeda at bay.
Here again, Bearden appeared to have no worries. “I don’t see all those planets lining up again ever,” he said.
Former Pakistani ambassador Lodhi agreed. “Al Qaeda exists more as an idea today,” Lodhi said in a slightly British accent, noting that its ability to mount large attacks has been degraded.
None of the experts, however, suggested a rapid pull-out from Afghanistan.
During the Senate hearing on Thursday, more questions were asked than were answered. Experts agreed that the United States is in a difficult situation in Afghanistan, and they were quick to offer philosophical advice, but appeared to have trouble suggesting specifically what the United States should do.
Lodhi from Pakistan, and Bearden of the CIA stressed the importance of perception and downplayed the importance of military involvement.
Bearden suggested that an escalation would backfire. “There will not be a military solution,” he said. “That number will be matched by those who oppose the troops.”
“There is no possible way for the United States to supply enough troops to pacify the situation,” Bearden said. He estimated that roughly 500,000 troops would be needed to pacify the region, something he said could only be done with a draft.
Lodhi in turn predicted that an escalation would result in “intensified fighting,” more casualties, and an overall escalation of the war.
New America Foundation President Steve Coll, the only expert not completely against an escalation, suggested the extra troops might not be necessary. “I’m just not clear about what the additional troops will be doing,” he said.
The witnesses also argued that the negative effects of a troop increase would be felt not only by the United States and Afghanistan. Lodhi said it could have grave consequences for Pakistan, explaining that it would cause more militants and refugees to flee into Pakistan, and erode the fragile consensus there to fight the militancy.
Some of the refugee camps are larger than many cities in Europe, she said.
She added that an increase of 40,000 soldiers in Afghanistan would double or even triple the supply lines in Pakistan.
The Pakistani military — already spread thin as it continues to fight internal militants — would be expected to protect these new supply lines.
Bearden and Lodhi both stressed that additional troops, regardless of their goodwill, would be characterized by the opposition as a military escalation.
“Many see the United States as an occupation force, no different from the Soviet army,” Lodhi said. This perception makes many Pakistani tribes sympathetic to Afghan tribes.
The Soviets invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 1979 and also had difficulty quelling the region, despite their huge troop level of roughly 140,000 and their small regard for civilian casualties.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had convened to discuss the effects of the Afghan war on neighboring Pakistan but the situation in Afghanistan itself often took the limelight.
Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, ranking member of the committee, declared that “one of the most important goals of an enlarged American commitment to Afghanistan would be the preservation and potential enhancement of stability in Pakistan.”
But Tennessee Republican Bob Corker took an opposing tack. “I hope that Pakistan doesn’t become a diversion,” he said.
American lawmakers have been concerned that Pakistan might fall under insurgent control, as it battles extremists within its borders. Just last May, alarm spread through Congress after the Taliban fought their way to within 60 miles of Islamabad, the capital of the nuclear-armed country.
A recent Pew Research Center study shows that two thirds of Pakistanis regard the United States as an enemy, while only one in ten view it as a partner. Lodhi said that it’s only within the last year that Pakistanis have turned against the Taliban.
“We need to fix this relationship,” Kerry said.
On Wednesday, Congress authorized the tripling of U.S. aid to Pakistan, bringing the sum to $1.5 billion a year to help stabilize the democratic government. Obama has said he will sign the bill.
Lugar from Indiana mentioned that Pakistanis are less excited about the amount of aid, and more about the duration. The legislation outlines a five-year commitment.
Lodhi depicted the traditional Pakistani view that “we are seen as hired help. We are not seen as a valued ally.”
The bill might help to combat this perception.
Call from the New America Foundation testified that the Pakistanis have tolerated militants because they are concerned the United States will abandon them after the insurgents fall, and they see militants as a way of counterbalancing the military and economic superiority of India.
He said that if the United States surges troops or draws down troops too quickly, this could reinforce that trend.
If American troops are drawn down too quickly, this would feed Pakistan’s concern that the United States will turn its back once the threat is over. If troops are significantly increased, he said this could spur Pakistan to use the Taliban as a hedge.
With a hint of indignation that likely represented Pakistani frustrations, Lodhi remarked that Pakistan has been constantly berated for not doing enough in the fighting the insurgency, but said Pakistan’s significant efforts to take care of such large refugee camps “somehow don’t get play in your country.”
New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen questioned Bearden’s earlier suggestion that the United States should not give militants a reason to fight. She said the militants have often brought it on themselves, noting that they abuse girls who go to school, inciting the military to provide security, and then the process escalates.
Bearden responded by calling the girls’ schools “a nice thought” but said they have been “a lightning rod” for conflict, and questioned whether the United States should be imposing its social ideals on the Afghan culture.
Several proposals were put forward on how to stabilize the region.
Lodhi said the military and police forces are “ethnically skewed” and suggested that they be more balanced.
Bearden suggested stimulating the economy and offering jobs to young men. “We assume all they do is fight,” Bearden said of the militants, but argued that it doesn’t have to be the case.
The experts agreed that a better economy in Afghanistan would help to stabilize the region, but disagreement circulated over how to achieve it.
Bearden suggested that the United States help Afghanistan turn to its natural resources.
But Coll disagreed that the United States should be directly involved. “The role of the United States is not to build that future, but to enable it,” he said.
Lodhi supported the idea of stimulating the economy, and stepped back to say that being perceived positively by the locals is important. She said physical sanctuaries can be managed. She concluded, “It is the sanctuaries in peoples minds that we need to deal with.”