He came under questioning from skeptical senators from both parties who advocate a reduced U.S. role in Afghanistan after a decade of involvement that has cost nearly $19 billion. The nominee argued that the United States must continue investing in the country to keep it from again becoming a haven for terrorists. He told the committee that “if Iraq was hard . . . Afghanistan in many respects is harder.” But that does not mean success there is “impossible,” he said.
Obama, meanwhile, spoke with Afghan President Hamid Karzai for about an hour by video teleconference Wednesday morning, covering topics including bin Laden’s death and recent civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes. The White House said the two discussed the impact of the al-Qaeda leader’s death “on the fight against terrorism and on regional dynamics,” as well as the “transition to Afghan leadership for security,” among other subjects.
Obama “expressed his sorrow over tragic civilian casualties, most recently in Helmand province,” the White House said. It said he and Karzai noted that the radical Islamist Taliban movement bears responsibility “for the great majority of civilian losses,” but agreed that every loss of civilian life “undermines our mission that focuses on protecting the population.”
Crocker’s testimony came as the Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic majority staff released a report calling on the Obama administration to rethink its Afghan assistance programs, saying that the hugely expensive U.S. nation-building effort has had limited success and may not survive an American withdrawal.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, told Crocker in an opening statement that the current U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, “in troops and dollars, is neither proportional to our interests nor sustainable.” While the U.S. military has made gains against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, “we have not yet made sufficient gains in the east, where the threat from insurgent groups based in Pakistan continues,” he said in his prepared remarks.
Kerry called for a “political settlement to end the war,” saying the United States should support the Afghan government as it tries to negotiate with insurgents “who are willing to cut an acceptable deal.” He also urged the administration to reexamine plans to build up the Afghan security forces. “Their ability to defend their country remains our ticket out of Afghanistan, but there are serious questions about their size, capability and sustainability,” Kerry said.