The U.S. House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee held a hearing on “Assessing the President’s Strategy in Afghanistan” on Wednesday. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the subcommittee, opened the hearing with the following statement:
As we are all aware, earlier this week, the Department of State issued a notice warning of a possible imminent attack in Kabul. With so much of our attention focused on the threat from ISIL and the problems in Syria, Iraq and Iran, it’s important that we do not lose sight of some of the other areas of concern for our national security interests and this security warning is a stark reminder of that.
It took a resurgent Taliban seizing control of Kunduz for President Obama to adjust his strategy, announcing a halt to the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. It was an acknowledgment that the strategy of gradual withdrawal was not in line with the reality on the ground. Yet concerns remain that the president isn’t leaving behind enough troops to support our objectives in Afghanistan.
What was lost in the discussion was the fact that Afghan security forces were able to regain Kunduz back from the Taliban. Our military leaders on the ground feel confident that the Afghan security forces have done a good job fighting during this season and are more professional than the Iraqi security forces. Today, our core mission is to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces and to conduct counterterror operations against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Last month, I led a bipartisan congressional delegation visit – and was pleased to be joined by one of our members of our subcommittee, Dr. Yoho - to Afghanistan to meet with our troops carrying out this mission, as well as to discuss pressing issues with President Ghani, CEO Abdullah, General Campbell and other U.S. military leaders. I had also visited in 2013 and met with President Karzai. The one thing that was abundantly clear to me this time around, and echoed by everyone with whom we met, was that the Afghan government’s eagerness to cooperate with us has improved vastly and that the team of Ghani and Abdullah is an improvement over Karzai.
The current Afghan leaders are saying the right things and are undertaking efforts to root out corruption to secure and stabilize the country. We cannot abandon our ally and we must double our efforts to remain engaged to seek a more stable Afghanistan.
ISIL is growing in its presence in Afghanistan – mainly by attracting some of the more radical elements of the Taliban who have broken away and sworn allegiance to ISIL – and that makes our strategy in Afghanistan that much more important. General Campbell told Congress that the terror group’s status in Afghanistan has grown from nascent to operationally emergent over the course of the year. Yet, when I led our congressional delegation trip to Afghanistan, I was shocked to hear that our mission does not give our commanders and troops the authority to go after ISIL – that the task for containing and defeating this rising threat falls squarely on the Afghan government and its security forces.
The day the CODEL departed from the region, we learned that 7 people in Afghanistan were beheaded by ISIL and thousands of people came out to the streets to protest this horrific act of terror. We must rethink the scope of our mission to include taking on more than just al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
We should also reassess out counternarcotics approach in Afghanistan. Terror and drugs are linked, as much of the profits from the drug trade in Afghanistan fund these terror groups. While it is encouraging that the new Afghan government has signed a new counter drug plan, we need to ensure that it has the resources to succeed in action. I remain concerned that the number of DEA agents has decreased substantially, our State INL staff are limited in their movements, and the Afghan counternarcotics forces cannot concentrate on the drug trade because they are busy fighting terrorism. Both the U.S. forces and the Afghan security forces have a limited amount of airlift capabilities, which further limits their ability to tackle any major security or counternarcotics concern. This runs the danger of leaving a wide area of Afghanistan unexposed to our security efforts, and it could have terrible consequences.
The administration needs to revisit its strategy, not just put a halt on the withdrawal, because artificial timelines will not work, and it needs to also get buy-in from Pakistan. President Ghani had reached out his hand to Pakistan but has been rebuffed. The U.S. cannot afford to have Pakistan play into the instability in Afghanistan and to continue to allow terrorists safe haven inside its borders. We currently have a pending military package for Pakistan before us on this committee. We need to use this as leverage to get Pakistan to do more on the counter terrorism front and to collaborate, rather than work against, the Afghan government and its security forces.
During our trip, we were also honored to meet with courageous women of Afghanistan and were proud to hear of the strides being made on women’s rights, thanks to their hard work and leadership. The stakes are too high in Afghanistan for the Afghan people, for the region and for U.S. national security interests to allow Afghanistan to fall back on any of the progress we have made this far.
Lastly, I want to thank the brave men and women serving and protecting our national security interests in Afghanistan. We had an opportunity to meet with so many of these truly heroic and courageous individuals who are putting their lives at risk each and every day so that we can sleep safely at home, while they are out there defending our freedom.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was first elected to Congress in 1989.