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Hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Afghanistan: A Plan to Turn the Tide? (Panel I)

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Location: Washington, DC

SEN. BIDEN: (Strikes gavel.) The committee will come to order, please.

Let me in advance apologize to my colleagues and the witnesses for my cold and my occasional coughing. I -- it's irritating to me. It's probably going to be more irritating to you.

But I thank you very much for being here. We have a very -- we have two distinguished panels here today, and we're anxious to get going.

As I see it, here's the situation in Afghanistan. Security is probably as its lowest ebb since 2001. Much of the country is only nominally under the control of Kabul. The U.S. and coalition forces win every pitched battle, but the Taliban still grows stronger day by day.

Drug trafficking dominates the national economy, and narco-barons operate with impunity. Reconstruction efforts have failed to bring substantial improvement to the lives of most Afghan citizens, and the slow pace is causing widespread resentment at both the Karzai government and the West.

And bin Laden and top al Qaeda leaders enjoy safe haven somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistani border. In fact, this summer the NIE, the National Intelligence Estimates on the terror threat, found that al Qaeda has, quote, "protected or regenerated key elements of its homeland attack capability," end of quote.

The administration firmly believes that we're about to turn the corner and that we just need to give our policy a chance to work. I am curious as to what that policy is, because, quite frankly, I'd tell you I'm somewhat -- I -- it's not clear to me.

But that's exactly as well what we've been hearing for the past five years: the tide is about to turn. I sure hope so, I say to my witnesses, the witness from the administration, but I'm not prepared to bet on that under the present strategy.

If we're not going to hold another hearing on Afghanistan next year and have another retelling of the same story, it seems to me we need a significant change in policy now.

Last month the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, testified to another congressional committee that the Taliban support has tripled over the past two years. In Iraq, he said, and I quote, "the United States does what it must, while in Afghanistan the United States does what it can," end of quote.

I appreciate the admiral's honesty. His statement, it seems to me, makes abundantly clear why our efforts in Afghanistan seem to be too little, too late. We're not succeeding in Afghanistan quite simply because we haven't made the kind of priority I think it need be made. We've not made success there our priority.

What would it take to achieve success in Afghanistan? At a minimum, it seems to me from reading testimony, talking to other people, having briefings from the intelligence community, as well as discussions from my colleagues -- at the minimum it's going to take a significantly greater investment, including troops and the type of troops, and including investment in rebuilding that country; but it will still be a small fraction of what we have devoted to Iraq thus far.

We've spent about as much on development and aid in Afghanistan over the past five years as we spent on the war in Iraq -- as we spend on the war in Iraq every three weeks. What could more development aid do? Can it do much without a reorganization of the way in which the aid is distributed and dealing with corruption? As every military expert to testify before our committee has noted, the battle against the Taliban is not going to be won with bullets and bombs alone. It's going to be won with roads, clinics, and schools. General Karl Eikenberry used to say, when he was in command of U.S. force in Afghanistan, and I quote, "Where the road ends, the Taliban begins."

We could have done -- what could we have done with a fraction of the military resources we've spent in Iraq? Earlier this month, Secretary Gates announced the deployment of 3,200 additional Marines to Afghanistan. This is welcome news, at least in my view. But does anyone truly believe that it's enough to turn the tide?

What do we need to do to achieve success in Afghanistan? In brief, the same thing we should have been doing all along. First, establish security. If we should be securing -- if we should be surging forces anywhere, it's in Afghanistan, not Iraq. NATO troops and the new Marine deployment are necessary but not sufficient. We have to focus not just on sending more forces but the kinds of forces and equipment we need to have sent. We need more helicopters, more airlift, more surveillance drones.

And we've got to do a better job of training the Afghan and -- police and army. You know, that old bad expression deja vu all over again? As I read the reports that have been filed with regard to the police agencies, it is frighteningly reminiscent of the early reports about the police agencies in Afghanistan -- excuse me, in Iraq. They're corrupt, ineffectual, and most places, based on what I'm told -- the administration may have a different view -- they're viewed more as the problem than the solution by the population.

We need far more funds. We need to use them far better. The Afghans are patient but they're not seeing reconstruction worthy of a superpower, worthy of the commitment we made -- the president made for a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. After more than six years and more than $6 billion, the most we can claim is that life of ordinary Afghans isn't as bad as it was under the Taliban. We've got to aim much higher, I think. And we have to deliver much more.

Third thing we have to do is deal with the counternarcotics -- excuse me, we have to counter the narcotics explosion. We should target multimillion-dollar drug kingpins, not dollar-a-day opium farmers. Someday (early ?) eradication may have its place, but in my view, not until we've got an alternative livelihood set up and a judicial system capable of taking down the drug barons.

Until then, we should focus on the top of the food chain, not the bottom.

We have five witnesses today who can explain these issues in detail, with authority and expertise. First is assistant secretaries Richard Boucher and David Johnson from the State Department. Then, three outside experts, well-known to this committee and widely respected will be here. General James Jones, Admiral Thomas Pickering -- excuse me, Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

I believe the war in Afghanistan is winnable, but I don't believe we're winning. I believe we need a new strategy for success, and I hope this hearing can -- and this committee can help the administration produce one.

Before I recognize Senator Lugar, I'd like to welcome our guest, Michael Wilson, the ambassador of Canada. Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for being here, and thank you for the really herculean effort your country is making and the sacrifices you're enduring to deal with the situation in Afghanistan. You're one of our closest friends and your nation is shouldering a heavy load for the common good in Afghanistan and we thank you very much.

Today, at least 78 Canadian troops have given their lives in this struggle, and of the dozens of nations participating in this struggle, only the United States and Britain have lost more troops. These represent the first combat deaths Canada has suffered since the Korean War, and I'm sure it has political repercussions at home. It's not always appreciated. We're not -- we don't always tell you, but our gratitude for your country is immense, and we thank you for being here.

Senator Lugar.

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MR. JOHNSON: Based on its experience in other countries, the U.N. estimates that 25 percent of Afghanistan's poppy crop must be eradicated in order to effectively deter the population from growing poppy. To promote eradication that is effective and equitable, the U.S. government strongly supports non-negotiated, force-protected eradication. The U.N. has reported that poppy cultivation is no longer associated with poverty in Afghanistan. The poppy fields in the south are largely owned by wealthy drug lords and in some instances corrupt officials. The benefits of this policy are reducing financial benefit to insurgents and corrupt officials that enable a climate of corruption far outweigh the potential loss of support a small percentage of the population.

To develop the ability of the nation -- Afghan criminal justice sector the Departments of State and Justice are training a specially vetted task force of Afghan judges, prosecutors and investigators to try mid- and high-value narcotics traffickers before the counternarcotics tribunal of Afghanistan. Since that Afghan-led task force became operational in May 2005, it's prosecuted over 1,200 cases, arrested over 1,600 defendants and seized more than 38 metric tons of opium.

Mr. Chairman, again, I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you and your colleagues. I welcome your feedback and look forward to the discussion.

Thank you.

SEN. BIDEN: Thank you, gentlemen.

Seven-minute round, is that okay? (No audible response.)

Well, to listen to you two guys we're doing really well; things are going really well in Afghanistan. And I -- that's encouraging.

But let me ask you, 38 metric tons seized, how many produced?

MR. JOHNSON: It's a fraction of the amount produced.

SEN. BIDEN: Like what, 1 percent?

MR. JOHNSON: No, I think it's substantially more than that, but not --

SEN. BIDEN: Well, what do you think? Give me an estimate.

MR. JOHNSON: I believe about 400. So I would say in the range of maybe 10 percent.

SEN. BIDEN: And the criminal justice system, is it functional?

MR. JOHNSON: It is beginning to function, but it is not functioning in the way that we would expect in a --

SEN. BIDEN: It's not even remotely functional at this point, is it?

MR. JOHNSON: Remotely, I -- I would not describe it as -- more than remotely functioning, but it is in the process of being established.

SEN. BIDEN: Yeah, it isn't functioning. That'd be a fair statement, isn't true? I mean there's some places where it may be functioning, but essentially it's not a functioning criminal justice system.

MR. JOHNSON: Well, I did mention that there's been over 1,200 convictions for this special court, so there is a system that is producing some results, but it is embryonic.

SEN. BIDEN: Ambassador Boucher, you indicated that we're making progress against the Taliban. How does that square with the fact they control a lot more of the country?

MR. BOUCHER: I don't think they actually control a lot more of the country; they operate in a lot of country. But we've seen areas where they've tried to settle down and establish control. We've seen several of those major areas taken away. Panjwayi near Kandahar, Canadian and Afghan operation early this -- late 2006, early this year -- that was one of their heartland places, and they're out of there now and there's services being brought into that area, a lot of people -- ordinary people moving back.

So I think that is --

SEN. BIDEN: Are we better off relative to the Taliban today than we were two years ago?

MR. BOUCHER: We're better off in terms of our ability to bring in the government and help them provide services throughout the country. We're not better off -- we're better off in terms of they're not controlling places and not having so many concentrations where they can operate from.

We're not better off in terms of bombs, because as they've been losing on the battlefield -- they've failed to achieve any of their objectives last year, except they've turned more and more to terror. And they've -- they're able to go blow themselves up.

SEN. BIDEN: And so we're losing more, right, this year than last year?

MR. BOUCHER: We've been out there fighting a lot more, and yes, we've had more casualties this year.

SEN. BIDEN: Yeah. The police: how would you rate their effectiveness?

MR. BOUCHER: Very variable.

SEN. BIDEN: Any place -- tell me where it's real good.

MR. BOUCHER: I think some districts, some places in the north, some districts in the south where we started this focused development show a lot of promise. Police training has lagged behind all the other sectors. We made a major push last year in budget and in effort. Now we've got a lot more good policemen coming out. We've got a lot more trained policemen. We've got a lot more focus on what needs to be done with the police. --

SEN. BIDEN: The reports I've read --

MR. BOUCHER: We've seen some of the reform in Ministry of Interior that's needed. But more of that is yet to come.

SEN. BIDEN: This just -- this discussion reminds me so much of the discussion about police in Iraq that Senator Hagel and I have had over the years. I don't -- I've not found one independent report that suggests that they're anything other than a problem. Can you cite one for me?

MR. BOUCHER: I'll tell you one thing. There was a survey done last year that I think was reported by the BBC in December, and one of the things that really struck me was people said they'd rather have bad policemen than no policemen at all. Now that's certainly not our goal, but the fact that people do have policemen --

SEN. BIDEN: Well, that's what you've achieved. We've achieved that, though. It may not be the goal. We've achieved it.

MR. BOUCHER: That was the case beforehand, sir. There were 70- some --

SEN. BIDEN: The case right now -- look, look, you know, it's interesting; I thought this report by the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit -- it's called "Cops or Robbers?" -- the report ends with the following, and I'm not citing this as the only source. We're going to hear from two witnesses about this as well. It says that "it's time to clarify today's blurred vision on the role of police in Afghanistan, and to achieve a consensus on a common vision and strategy for developing a police force that will operate as cops rather than as robbers."

This is so much -- I mean, such an echo of four years ago, five years ago in Afghanistan. The emphasis has been on numbers, not quality. The emphasis has been to rapidly ramp up the numbers of police, and -- well, let me move on in the minute or so I have left.

With regard, Mr. Johnson, to the move against poppy production, how many of the drug lords have been arrested and tried and put out of business?

MR. JOHNSON: I mentioned in the statement that I made the number of arrests that have been made by -- and the number of convictions. "Drug lord" is an indefinite term.

SEN. BIDEN: No, it's not. No, it's not an indefinite term. You know, there's at least a dozen identifiable people you know who are running these operations. If you don't know, we really have a problem. We have a gigantic problem if you don't know. You know. Have any of them been arrested?

MR. JOHNSON: I think if you -- we were going to be using the term "kingpin", which is frequently used in these terms, I don't think we have been yet successful in that -- and arrested and convicted. The exception to that being that there have been some extradition to the United States for trial here.

SEN. BIDEN: Right.

MR. JOHNSON: I think all of those individuals are people that we would describe as significant players in the Afghan drug trade.

SEN. BIDEN: One last question on this, and there's a lot more I want to come back to, but I, in speaking to the intelligence community, the military, almost every segment of our government involved with having an input on dealing with eradication -- nobody seems to think, including our NATO allies, that aerial spraying is a good idea. And you pointed out that you have reduced to -- you have six fewer areas in which poppy is now being produced. How did you succeed there? Was it aerial spraying?

MR. JOHNSON: The way we made progress there was multifold, but it was through a forced eradication program in which we provided assistance. It was --

SEN. BIDEN: When you say forced eradication, what kind of forced -- what was the -- ?

MR. JOHNSON: On the ground -- on the ground, mechanical.

SEN. BIDEN: Right.

MR. JOHNSON: It was through -- it was significantly and even largely through local governing officials. In particular, governors who had the political will and had the security environment in which they could destroy poppy themselves.

SEN. BIDEN: I think there's probably a lesson in that, isn't there? I mean --

MR. JOHNSON: Well, I think the lesson is -- where you have -- that security and counternarcotics go hand in hand, that you can't have one without the other, and you can't do them sequentially. You have to do them together.

SEN. BIDEN: Right. The military tells me that if in fact aerial eradication was -- is adopted as the favored method of eradication, which as our ambassadors wants very much, that that would require a heck of a lot more military resources than we have now. You're essentially flying crop dusters. This is something I've been involved in, with 30 years on this issue, as you have from the Judiciary Committee, and you're essentially flying crop duster, what most people would think would be that eradicating -- these defoliant that takes out the -- and in order for that to occur successfully, you need helicopter gunships, you need protection for those aircraft, because they can be shot down. They can be shot down, some of them, just with small arms fire.

So have you calculated what additional military resources beyond the actual planes that would spray the defoliant are needed in order to make, even the decision is made that aerial eradication should be the major thrust of eradication, have you -- is there a study or a calculation or a report that you put together, what other assets you'd need?

MR. JOHNSON: Well, based on the consideration of this issue earlier, when we were considering whether or not it would be the right way to, we have developed plans for this, in addition to the spray aircraft, which are lightly armored, as you mention. We have the helicopters already on the ground that provide security for the ground force eradication program. So they're there and they're capable of providing this service, if it were needed.

But if I could --

SEN. BIDEN: That's interesting. If you could submit that for the record, that would be great, and even in a classified form, because you're the first person that's told me that. That's a fascinating thing.

MR. JOHNSON: Well, could I continue?

SEN. BIDEN: Sure, please.

MR. JOHNSON: We have these aircraft there because we need them for -- the helicopters -- for the ground program. They're also used for mobility for the police training program, for assisting in the development of judicial system. So those aircraft are on the ground already.

SEN. BIDEN: Pretty well spoken for.

MR. JOHNSON: But not any spray aircraft. We don't have the capability to do any spraying and we don't plan to, because we've consulted with the government of Afghanistan, and they have said that they do not wish for us to do so.

SEN. BIDEN: Oh, okay, good, all right. Thank you very much. I yield to the chairman.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

SEN. BIDEN: Let me explain, if I may, the absence of the Democrats. There is a Democratic caucus going on right now, relating to the combination of what the Democrats are going to do in the Senate relative to the stimulus package, as well as what they're going to do relative to our debate relating to continuation of the president's program on eavesdropping. So that's under way now. That's the reason why they're not here. It's called at 10:00, and I'd rather be here.

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SEN. BIDEN: I'd just note, if I, as I yield here, I'd just note that it may not be a measure of whether we're winning or losing, but three of us are heading there, Afghanistan, shortly. And the committee staff has come back and filed their fourth report, and little minor things like, you can't go outside the embassy now without armed escort that's been beefed up. You can't walk places we walked before. You can't go into certain areas without a significant military cover.

That may not -- in fairness, it may go to the point that, you're right, that it may not say much about what the total circumstance of the Afghan people are. But it sure says what -- how things have become a hell of a lot more dangerous for our personnel there than they were yesterday and the day before and 10 days before and a year before and two years before and four years before and five years before.

Senator Sununu. (Cross talk.)

Oh, I'm sorry. Sure, no, thank for reminding me of that. I was just looking at the seating arrangement. I apologize. It's been so long since I've been here.

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