By David Nakamura
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 2:39 PM
KABUL - A bipartisan group of visiting U.S. senators asserted Wednesday that coalition forces in Afghanistan have made substantial progress since President Obama ordered 30,000 additional soldiers here last summer.
But the lawmakers cautioned that American troops will remain here through 2014, well past the July 2011 target Obama had set for the start of a drawdown, because of the ongoing challenges posed by corruption in the Afghan government.
"The big picture is that we have made significant progress since the surge started and that progress has freed people from the oppression that they were living under," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), addressing reporters at the U.S. Embassy.
"But the fact is, it was wrong to set the date July 2011," he added. "It sent the wrong message and created a problem, and we need to have the president state unequivocally that [a drawdown] is solely conditions-based. I worry a great deal about the effect of that [target date] because it encourages our enemies and discourages our friends."
McCain was joined at the lectern by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). The group is in Afghanistan as part of a tour of the region that will also include Iraq and Pakistan. Their review of the Afghan war, now in its 10th year, comes at a critical juncture: The Obama administration has promised a review of the troop increase next month, which will determine how long the United States will remain here and presumably chart a course for an eventual handover to Afghan forces.
The senators concurred with recent assessments by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and other military officials who have said coalition forces have succeeded in forcing the Taliban to retreat in strategically critical regions such as Kandahar, the insurgents' traditional home in the south.
Graham, an Air Force reservist who has served here, went so far as to say that the Petraeus-led troops have "created a sense of security I haven't seen since coming here."
Yet that rosy assessment was offset by a gloomy summary of what the senators called rampant corruption within Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration, a long-standing problem that has led the Afghan public to doubt the government's ability to deliver services.
"The biggest problem in Afghanistan, in the eyes of their own people, is the culture of impunity," Graham said. "There is a belief in Afghanistan that if you know the right people and you're connected to the right group, you can do almost anything and not face consequences. If that doesn't change, there is no amount of troops in the world that can turn this around."
Graham promised that the senators would raise the corruption issue with Karzai in a meeting scheduled for Wednesday night.
Yet McCain, Lieberman and Graham had raised the same concerns during a set of briefings here last summer, and there has been little evidence that the Karzai administration has become serious about eliminating corruption. The president himself intervened in late July to spring from jail an aide who had been arrested on charges of soliciting a bribe. The Major Crimes Task Force and Special Investigations Unit, the two Afghan government agencies responsible for the arrest, have since had their powers limited by the Karzai administration.
Graham conceded Wednesday that the United States and NATO have been complicit in fueling corruption through weak oversight of the billions of dollars in contracts delivered to local and foreign businesses in the country each year. Petraeus has issued new contracting guidelines to help reduce fraud, waste and abuse.
The senators acknowledged that despite battlefield gains, a lot of work remains to be done before the coalition forces can hand over the lead to Afghan forces.
"There is an overwhelming majority of both parties that agree July 2011 will not be an American pullout," Lieberman said. "The goal the president set was based on a review of conditions on the ground. We're going to stay here until the job is done. Members of Congress understand that completely."