Afghan President Karzai approves plan for local defense forces

By Karen DeYoung and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 15, 2010

In a welcome step forward for the Obama administration's beleaguered war strategy, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has approved a U.S.-backed plan to create local defense forces across the country in an attempt to build grass-roots opposition to the Taliban, U.S. and Afghan officials said Wednesday.

The program calls for hiring as many as 10,000 "community police" officers, who would be vetted and paid by the Afghan Interior Ministry, according to a senior Afghan government official. Karzai had objected to plans that did not place all elements of such a force under direct government control.

News of the deal came as Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's chief diplomat in charge of the war effort's civilian side, endured withering bipartisan criticism from lawmakers who said Obama's strategy in Afghanistan is ill-defined and lacks goals that most Americans can understand.

"Our progress is decidedly mixed," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) told Holbrooke at a hearing to discuss the administration's programs to bolster Afghanistan's government and economy. "Many people are asking if we have the right strategy," Kerry said.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the panel's top Republican, cited "significant concern" that both the civilian and military sides of the strategy are "proceeding without a clear definition of success."

Those were the milder statements. Later in the hearing, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that despite more than an hour of testimony by Holbrooke, "I have heard nothing, nothing" about how progress will be measured. "I have no earthly idea what our objectives are on the civilian front. So far, this has been an incredible waste of time."

Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) remarked, "A lot of people in this country are very confused."

Holbrooke repeatedly explained the civilian elements of the policy, including its focus on agricultural development and better Afghan governance, and the overall goal of enabling the country to fend off the Taliban and al-Qaeda on its own. The administration was looking for "measurable results," he said, and "the president is demanding that of the military and civilian teams."

Holbrooke said he planned to travel to the region again Wednesday night, after returning from his last Afghanistan trip two weeks ago.

"I cannot tell you how deeply we feel that pressure," he told Webb, who asked what was being accomplished in Afghanistan. "Particularly because, as you've said, American men and women are risking their lives, sometimes paying the ultimate price, for this policy. It has to work. We owe it to them."

Criticism mounts

Criticism of the strategy that Obama announced in December has grown rapidly in recent weeks as casualties have continued to rise and Afghanistan has surpassed Vietnam as the longest war in U.S. history. Much of the news has been mixed at best, including an increase in reports of Afghan government corruption and slow progress in military offensives on the ground.

Public impatience and concern over the cost in lives and money have been reflected in congressional demands for results. Many Republican lawmakers have condemned the July 2011 deadline Obama set for beginning a drawdown of U.S. forces as giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and some Democrats have said the troops should come home now.

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