Rep. Smith sees Afghan progress

The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee says that progress is being made in Afghanistan, despite a steady stream of negative news surrounding a spike in “insider attacks” on U.S. and NATO troops.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) led a group of five House members on a trip to Afghanistan last week, where they met with U.S. Afghan Commander Gen. John Allen and senior Afghan officials for briefings on the 11-year war.

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Smith, who has taken about a half-dozen trips to Afghanistan, said in a phone interview with The Hill that the progress in Kabul is visible on the streets.

“Kabul in particular is much better. There’s more economic activity, more people in the streets, more shops going up,” Smith said. 

“Clearly, Kabul’s economy is improving, its government is improving, and its security is improving,” he said. “That’s true of most populated areas, though the roads in-between the populated areas are still very dangerous.”

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Smith said that the progress comes with plenty of caveats, including the number of insider attacks, government corruption and concerns about how the Afghan government will transition into the 2014 elections. President Hamid Karzai is term-limited by the Afghan constitution.

But Smith, who is in Florida Monday as a surrogate for President Obama at the foreign policy debate with GOP nominee Mitt Romney, said that he's optimistic the Afghan forces will be able to complete the goal set by Obama administration in 2009 of denying al Qaeda and its allies a safe-haven. U.S. forces are training the Afghans to take control of security by the end of 2014.

The Taliban isn’t going away, Smith said, but they have been weakened, and the Afghan government is in a better position than it was three years ago to hold off the insurgency.

“I’m optimistic we’ll be able to accomplish that goal and be able to maintain it,” Smith said. “There will certainly still be violence in Afghanistan, and certainly still be challenges with governance, but we’re giving the Afghan government the chance to stand, even amidst some challenges.”

Smith took the congressional trip to Afghanistan with three Republicans on the Armed Services panel: Reps. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), Jeff Miller (Fla.) and Todd Plats (Pa.), as well as Democratic Rep. Ron Kind (Wis.). The group had a two-day swing through Kabul and Bagram in Afghanistan after a four-day visit to India.

Smith wasn’t the only one expressing some optimism about Afghanistan, as Hunter told his hometown paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, that he had a more upbeat assessment of Afghanistan after his visit.

The biggest challenge for NATO forces recently has been an increase in insider attacks, which led Allen to briefly halt some joint operations between NATO and Afghan forces. The rising number of insider attacks, some of which are due to Taliban infiltration in the Afghan security forces, has led to public support in the United States and other NATO countries for a quicker withdrawal.

Smith said that both U.S. and Afghan officials don't want the attacks to derail transition plans. He said the Afghan officials he spoke with are taking the threat seriously and focusing on better screening troops who join the Afghan security forces.

“Their sense is they want to make sure it doesn’t undermine the very strong relationship that we have,” Smith said. “I got the same sense from U.S. forces as well, that we’re not going to let that stop us from doing what we need to do.”

The looming question over the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is how the 68,000 U.S. troops will draw down ahead of the planned security hand-off by the end of 2014.

Allen, who will leave his role as commander in Afghanistan early next year, is currently preparing a recommendation for the president on troop numbers for next year and 2014.

Smith said that the question is whether the withdrawal should resemble a steady slope or if it’s done like “stair steps,” where the U.S. might keep all 68,000 troops there through the 2013 fighting season followed by a more rapid withdrawal.

Democrats like Smith and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) have advocated for a continuous drawdown, while Republican hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have suggested that it might be necessary to keep the same number U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2013.

“It’s definitely clear we’ll be done with combat ops by Jan. 1 2015,” Smith said. “But it could be accelerated.”