Sen. Bob Casey, in his strongest terms yet, is advocating a hasty exit from the war in Afghanistan.
In a floor speech Tuesday, coming in advance of President Barack Obama's planned announcement about a troop drawdown today, Casey said "the U.S. can shift from a strategy of counterinsurgency towards an increased focus on counterterrorism." Casey, the head of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee with jurisdiction over the region, listed several concerns -- including the shaky Afghan government and the need to protect women's rights.
"Significant challenges do indeed remain, but based on these advances and on the significant cost of our current policy, it is time, after ten long years, to begin the drawdown process," he said.
The language of a "significant shift in strategy" is likely farther than Obama will go, but Casey's in line with the president here. He didn't advocate a specific number of troops to pull out, nor did he challenge Obama's policy. Also, withdrawal polls well these days.
The full speech is below the jump.
Photo from October 2009 of Obama greeting fallen soldier at Dover Air Force Base: Mark Wilson/Getty Images.
As the President determines the degree and scope of drawdown in Afghanistan, there will be a lot of debate about the troop levels. While this is an important discussion, we need to step back and comprehensively focus on overall U.S. strategic interests in the region.
Over the course of my time in the Senate, I have participated in more than 20 Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Afghanistan and Pakistan. This week, we will hear from Secretary Clinton on the U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. I have personally chaired four hearings on U.S. policy in the region. I traveled Afghanistan and Pakistan on two occasions and met with our military and civilian leadership as well as senior government officials in both countries. I have spoken repeatedly on the floor of the Senate on the importance of accountability of U.S. military and civilian programs. When it comes to matters of war, the Senate has a special responsibility to ask tough questions and hold the executive branch accountable, no matter which party is in the White House. I have taken this responsibility very seriously and repeatedly questioned and examined U.S. policy in South Asia.
There has been substantial progress in Afghanistan. On the battlefield, the U.S. coalition and Afghan forces have rolled back advances made by the Taliban. We have made measurable, albeit fragile, gains on securing key provinces of the country. Al Qaeda, operating from Pakistan, has been significantly degraded.
There has also been measurable progress in the education and health fields. Only 900,000 boys and no girls attended school under the Taliban. Today, more than six million children are in school and a third of them are girls. In the field of health, more than 85 percent of Afghans now have access to at least some form of health care, up from nine percent in 2002.
These gains have not come without immeasurable sacrifice on the part of our armed forces and their families. In Pennsylvania, we have lost 70 service members in Operation Enduring Freedom since 2001 and 461 have been wounded. In Iraq, the Commonwealth has lost 197 service members and 1233 have been wounded. These courageous individuals gave what Lincoln called the “last full measure of devotion” and we owe a debt of gratitude to their families and to veterans returning from the field.
After this exhaustive review, and based on measurable gains in Afghanistan, I believe that the U.S. can shift from a strategy of counterinsurgency towards an increased focus on counterterrorism. It is time for the U.S. to lighten its footprint in the country, accelerate the shift in responsibility to Afghan forces and drawdown a significant number of U.S. troops from the country. The capabilities of Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been severely degraded. U.S. led development projects have strengthened the health and education sectors. At a time of economic austerity in the U.S., the $120 billion per year price tag is unsustainable. We must make a significant shift in our strategy.
As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern, South and Central Asian Affairs, I am focused on our broader national security interests in the region. We must focus on extremist groups that have the capability and intent to project terrorism on the U.S. homeland and interests around the world. We should continue to conduct counter terror operations on Al Qaeda, Pakistani Taliban and other terrorist organizations that seek to strike at the U.S. homeland and interests.
Significant challenges however remain and the U.S. should maintain focus on the following areas.
First, we must redouble our efforts to train the Afghan security forces. We have made substantial progress in recruitment and training, but this needs to be ramped up. In the long run, Afghanistan’s ability to deny haven to Al Qaeda or any terrorist organization will depend on a strong and durable army and police.
Second, much work remains in Pakistan. In Senate hearings and meetings with U.S. and Pakistani officials, I have questioned Pakistan’s full commitment to addressing the extremist threat within its borders. For example, Pakistan has done little to stop the flow of bomb components across the border into Afghanistan where they are used against our troops. Terrorists in Pakistan have the capability to strike internationally and have done so in recent years. These terrorists are also the central threat to the Pakistani state itself, a concern that grows as Pakistan inexplicably expands its nuclear arsenal. The Pakistani people have sacrificed greatly in the struggle against extremist groups, as thousands of civilians and security forces have died. That is precisely why it is so unfortunate that the Pakistani government is not fully committed to confronting this threat.
I have been very patient with respect to this critical relationship. But, I am compelled to speak the truth when the stakes are so high for the American people, U.S. troops and the people of Pakistan. In my judgment, recent developments are unacceptable and merit a serious examination of U.S. aid to Pakistan. The Senate should hold hearings so we can have a full accounting of Pakistan’s efforts to combat terrorism.
Third, I have very grave concerns about the future for women and girls in Afghanistan. If nothing else, we cannot lose the precious ground gained in rights for this critical 50% of the population. Over the past ten years, women have assumed seats in parliament, girls have returned to school and women’s rights have become a part of the public dialogue. When speaking to a group of Afghan women in May, Secretary Clinton said that “we will not abandon you, we will stand with you always.” We must, as a nation, stand by this commitment to the women and girls of Afghanistan. Empowered women are the most influential voice to dissuade young men from taking up arms. They are the most likely to develop their own communities. Most importantly, it is our moral obligation to protect those who are most vulnerable.
Finally, I have significant concerns about governance in Afghanistan. I have closely examined Afghanistan’s uneven governance record and have serious questions about the viability of the democratic experiment in the country. The foundational act of democracy -- elections – have not met international standards in Afghanistan and have established the basis for unresponsive government officials and corruption.
As the U.S. draws down its military presence, the international community must renew its focus on governance in the country and efficient disbursal of U.S. assistance. A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report suggests that we must do a better job of accounting for the resources spent on bolstering the Afghan government.
In conclusion, Mr. President, we have made progress in Afghanistan after all these years. The surge in U.S. troops, working with coalition forces and the Afghan army, has rolled back gains made by the Taliban. Our special forces have killed Osama bin Laden and several other senior Al Qaeda leaders. The numbers and capabilities of the Afghan security forces have increased. Women and girls are better off than they were in 2001 and the health sector has improved. Significant challenges do indeed remain, but based on these advances and on the significant cost of our current policy, it is time, after ten long years, to begin the drawdown process.