At his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, President Obama's nominee to be the next U.S. envoy to Kabul said it's critical the United States remain committed to Afghanistan, recalling the specter of a past American engagement there after the fall of the Soviet Union.
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"As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has noted, we walked away from Afghanistan once in 1989 with disastrous consequences," Ryan Crocker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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In his comments before the committee, Crocker offered a sober assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and noted that the government led by President Hamid Karzai faces enormous challenges in governance and rule of law that could upend American efforts in the country.
“Making progress on these issues has been hard, and it will go on being hard,” Crocker said. “But hard does not mean hopeless.” He echoed other officials when he said progress had been made but the situation remains "fragile and reversible."
Crocker’s comments come amid a growing push in Congress for the U.S. military to begin withdrawing a significant number of troops from Afghanistan as President Obama considers the size and scope of an initial drawdown of troops set for next month. Asked directly by Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., whether he thought Obama needs to maintain the current U.S. troop level, which stands at about 100,000, Crocker demurred, saying that he hasn’t been privy to the internal White House debate.
In questioning, Crocker was asked repeatedly about the mountainous cost of the war—the U.S. military is burning through about $10 billion per month in operations and set to spend another $3.2 billion in foreign assistance in 2012. The committee’s Democratic majority released a report ahead of Crocker’s testimony noting that the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are currently spending about $320 million a month on foreign aid in Afghanistan. The report noted that the U.S is using the money to win "hearts and minds,” but there is limited evidence that the programs are working.
“While the United States has genuine national security interests in Afghanistan, our current commitment, in troops and dollars, is neither proportional to our interests nor sustainable, in my judgment,” Kerry said.
Crocker, who is credited along with Gen. David Petraeus with helping turn around the war in Iraq, said that ultimately the administration’s goal is to dismantle al-Qaida and set conditions that Afghanistan won’t again be used as a safe haven for the terrorist group. “I don’t come with the intention of producing the perfect society,” Crocker said.
A 37-year veteran of the foreign service, Crocker served as ambassador to Baghdad, Beirut, and Islamabad and reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban.
This article appears in the June 8, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.