WASHINGTON – Skeptical senators from both parties swept aside the Bush administration's optimistic defense of its strategy in Afghanistan Thursday, suggesting weariness over the campaign against the Taliban.
Testifying for the administration before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher said "no one can tell me that Afghanistan is not going in the right direction." In a country that was one of the poorest in the world, he said there now is electricity, an army, a police force, cellular telephones and children going to school.
"We see a profound change," Boucher said.
Success is possible, but not assured, he added, saying the international community needs to expand its efforts in Afghanistan.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., D-Del., the committee chairman, and the most senior Republican, Sen. Richard G. Lugar R-Ind., expressed disbelief at Boucher's optimism.
"The administration firmly believes that we are about to turn a corner and that we just need to give our policy a chance to work," Biden said. "I am curious what that policy is because it's not clear to me."
"That's exactly what we've been hearing for the past five years; the tide is always about to turn," Biden said.
Lugar, reflecting unrest in President Bush's own Republican Party, began mildly: "I am not really certain we have a plan for Afghanistan."
The central government in Kabul does not control the country, he said. But the health services and school attendance are expanding.
Still, Lugar concluded, "At some point, the patience of America's allies and our own people will run out and they are going to say we've had enough."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been trying to persuade NATO allies to contribute more troops and equipment to the fight, without much success. Gates on Thursday met at the Pentagon with his French counterpart, Herve Morin; in remarks to reporters afterward Morin said nothing about sending French combat forces to Afghanistan but emphasized the need for economic and political aid.
"The problem in Afghanistan is not only a military problem," Morin said. "We need a comprehensive solution."
Gates offered an upbeat assessment, while declining to discuss the specifics of his talks with Morin.
"My view is that militarily, NATO has had a very successful year in 2007," he said. "The Taliban occupy no territory in Afghanistan on a continuing basis. There is a rising security issue but it is because the Taliban are turning to terrorism, having failed in conventional military conflict with the NATO allies."
Gates noted his recent decision to send 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan as combat troops and trainers of Afghan forces. The intent is to boost combat levels in time for an expected Taliban offensive in the spring.
Once those Marines get there this spring, as many as 31,200 U.S. forces would be in Afghanistan. The current total of 28,000 is already the highest level since the U.S. invasion in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The 7-year war has cost an estimated $25 billion, Boucher said.
"The strategy now is to win the war," he said, disputing Biden's assertion the Taliban now controls "a lot more of the territory." Boucher added, "We are better off" now although he acknowledged that "we have been fighting a lot more."
Canadian ambassador Michael Wilson was in the audience. Biden thanked the U.S. ally and said duty in Afghanistan had cost Canada its most casualties since World War II.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Bush Wednesday that Canada would end its military mission in Afghanistan if another NATO country did not put more soldiers in the dangerous south, officials said.
Harper's Conservative government is under pressure to withdraw its 2,500 troops from Kandahar province, the former Taliban stronghold, after the deaths of 78 Canadian soldiers and a diplomat. The mission is set to expire in 2009 without an extension by Canadian lawmakers.
Boucher, and Assistant Secretary of State David T. Johnson, who described only slightly successful efforts to discourage cultivation of poppies, were put on the defensive throughout the nearly two-hour hearing.
"The facts don't bear out" claims of winning the war, said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., noted there were five suicide bombings between 2001 and 2005 and 77 last year alone.
Boucher depicted the rise as evidence the Taliban are losing the battlefield. As they lose, he said, they resort more to such tactics as kidnappings and bombings.
In southern Afghanistan, a suicide bomber blew himself up Thursday in a mosque, killing a deputy provincial governor and five other worshippers in the latest assassination of a senior official in President Hamid Karzai's government.
Joining the criticism, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said, "We have not made the progress we should have made."
Another Republican, Bob Corker of Tennessee, said, "I am becoming concerned we are beginning to lose the Afghan people. I am stunned by us not having an organized plan."