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House Grills Experts Over AfPak Strategy

”Never before have we asked so much, of so few, for so long.” That is how retired Army Gen. Jack Keane wrapped up his prepared remarks before the House Armed Services Committee today, a fitting reminder of the costs of eight years of war made before lawmakers and the public, most of whom have never served in combat, let alone in the current conflicts.

But the hearing wasn’t about the valor of our troops or the sacrifices their families have made. It focused on what we should do next to fix Afghanistan and Pakistan and lessen any threat to U.S. interests resulting from those conflicts.

The bulk of the debate could be summed up along these lines:

* Back Gen. McChrystal and don’t give up. Send more troops, fast. That was Keane, former Army vice chief of staff.

* Failure would have a high cost. So, on balance, Stephen Biddle, an expert on the region at the Council on Foreign Relations, favors counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. He said the judgment here is, “between accepting greater casualties and sacrifices in the nearer term to reduce some probability of higher casualties and sacrifices in the longer term.”

* Stick with what we’ve got. Sending more troops isn’t worth it. That is Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. A successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan “still would leave ample room for a terrorist haven inside Afghanistan should a group seek to establish one,” he said.

The usual policy issues were raised: Karzai’s weak and, at least temporarily, illegitimate government; drugs and corruption; Pakistani Taliban versus Afghani Taliban and their respective links to al Qaeda; the relative importance of Pakistan as opposed to Afghanistan;the state of the Afghan security forces and how best to expand them; how much of a threat to the U.S. would the Taliban pose if they took over Afghanistan.

Biddle told the panel that “the Taliban are clearly not a direct threat to us. They are not going to launch missiles at the U.S.,” though they might “create indirect” threats to the country.

Keane noted that the cost ratio between U.S. and Afghan troops is about 25-1, so that as the U.S. builds up the Afghan National Police and the army ”there will be a net savings for us” over time. “We have to get those numbers up to where they make a difference,” said Keane, adding that “we’ve got to stop wringing our hands about the fact they are illiterate and it’s hard to find leaders” among the Afghan recruits since “we are not building an image of a western military force.”

Many of the lawmakers’ questions and statement reflected their political biases. In a clear swipe at Vice President Biden’s camp in favor of limiting our exposure in Afghanistan by using drones and Special Operations troops to harass and kill the enemy, the House panel’s top Republican, Rep. Buck McKeon, said proponents of this approach included “few if any who are military experts.”

McKeon added that he was “worried that we’re going to see ‘new’ analysis that justifies a more limited war strategy on the basis that we can now tolerate Mullah Omar’s Taliban in Afghanistan.”

In short, no silver bullets were offered. The decisions remain to be made and the troops will bear the burden.

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