WASHINGTON (AFP) – US lawmakers on saw momentum for political reconciliation in Afghanistan in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, but voiced fear that the fight against extremism was floundering in Pakistan.
Senator John Kerry, who recently visited the region, said US forces’ killing of bin Laden in Pakistan along with “security gains” in the Taliban’s historic stronghold of southern Afghanistan “have created some political space.”
“This is a critical moment in the war in Afghanistan,” Kerry said at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chairs. “It’s important that we seize that opportunity.”
“Middle- and low-level Taliban fighters, many of them want to come in from the battlefield. We need to work with the Afghan government in order to make sure that those who wish to lay down their arms can, in fact, do so,” he said.
President Barack Obama has tripled troops to Afghanistan but hopes to begin a withdrawal this summer and complete the pullout in 2014, some 13 years after the United States led the overthrow of the Taliban regime.
With polls showing that much of the US public is tired of the war, the Obama administration has in recent months played down the prospect of a military solution in Afghanistan and called for a political settlement.
But Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts and close ally of Obama, said that the United States should be concerned about extremists in Pakistan and the ease with which they cross the porous border with Afghanistan.
“It will take adroit and persistent diplomacy to convince the Pakistani military leaders that the real threat to their sovereignty comes not from its eastern border and not from across the Atlantic, but it comes from violent extremists in their own country,” Kerry said.
Senator Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the same committee, questioned why the United States was spending some $120 billion a year in Afghanistan, where some 100,000 US troops are deployed.
“The question before us is whether Afghanistan is strategically important enough to justify the lives and massive resources that we are spending there, especially given that few terrorists in Afghanistan have global designs or reach,” the Indiana lawmaker said.
“To the extent that our purpose is to confront the global terrorist threat, we should be refocusing resources on Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, parts of North Africa and other locations,” Lugar said.
Lawmakers voiced concern about what they saw as support from Pakistan for the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, a vehemently anti-Indian group accused of carrying out the 2008 siege of Mumbai that killed 166 people.
Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, pointed to an ongoing trial in Chicago where David Coleman Headley — who admitted scouting sites for the Mumbai attacks — said that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence supported Lashkar-e-Taiba.
“I don’t know how the United States can just ignore this. It seems to me that we need to be able to confront Pakistan’s support for terrorist organizations,” Cardin said.
At a separate House hearing, Representative Ed Royce worried that elements in Pakistan’s military supported bin Laden and may in the future share nuclear secrets with Al-Qaeda.
“In the past 10 years, Pakistan has received nearly $20 billion in US aid. Simply put, our Pakistan policy isn’t working,” said the Republican from California, who heads a House subcommittee on terrorism.
Testifying before the Senate committee, Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University and former CIA analyst, said that the United States had more leverage after bin Laden’s killing and credited the Obama administration with not “publicly rubbing the Pakistanis’ nose in that bit of dirt.”
“Behind closed doors, out of the public, we take a rather tough line and don’t shy away from confrontation. But to publicly make an issue of it is not going to advance our cause,” Pillar said.