WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today delivered the following statement at a full committee hearing on Afghanistan policy:
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you for calling this hearing.
“And Ambassador, thank you for your time today and for your service.
“Our policy obviously toward Afghanistan is critical. Fifteen thousand American troops remain on the ground there, fighting America’s longest war, and we provide billions in assistance every year.
“In the 17 years since Americans first deployed to Afghanistan after September 11, our troops and those of our allies have performed heroically. There has been significant progress on the counterterrorism front against al-Qaeda.
“Once estimated at as many as 5,000, the number of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan is now thought to be in the low hundreds. Unfortunately, those gains against al Qaeda aren’t comparable to the fight against the Taliban, which most experts consider a stalemate.
“The Trump Administration announced its approach to deal with this stalemate nearly a year ago, in what it termed "a new strategy" for Afghanistan and South Asia.
“It is meant to be a so-called “conditions-based” approach that emphasizes "fighting to win,” downplays "nation building,” includes a stronger line against Pakistan and a larger role for India, eliminates timetables, expands targeting authorities for U.S. forces, and, notably, commits to sending additional troops.
“In sum, the Administration seems to be planning to escalate the war in order to break the stalemate, forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table.
“But what happens if that stalemate is not broken?
“In its April 2018 report, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction—what we call SIGAR—found that the share of districts in Afghanistan under government control or influence is 56 percent. And unfortunately, that ties the lowest level ever recorded by SIGAR.
“So we need to be honest. Even with the best military in the world, it’s impossible to kill every member of the Taliban. Despite the President’s tough talk, even members of the Administration acknowledge that the war in Afghanistan will not be won on the battlefield. The President needs a strategy based on the facts as they are, not as he wishes them to be.
“So I thank all of the countries which have committed troops to the fight in Afghanistan for so many years.
“But, I worry with attacks on NATO and our allies, coming from the President, we are undermining the very alliance which binds the coalition fighting for the future of Afghanistan and our security.
“So rather than putting more Americans in harm’s way, the Administration should focus its resources on achieving a political resolution to the conflict.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, no doubt about it. Many brave Americans have perished at the hands of Taliban fighters. But the Taliban’s continued existence is a fact we need to deal with, and the old adage remains true: you don’t make peace with your friends.
“The Taliban refuses to talk directly with the Afghan government. They view it as illegitimate. That’s obviously made progress on reconciliation impossible.
“However, the Taliban has maintained an interest in talking with the United States, even after the President told the UN Security Council this past January that the U.S. “wasn’t prepared to talk right now.”
“That’s a mistake. If American interests are best served by negotiating directly with the Taliban, then we should stop kicking the can down the road. The Taliban claim that they will completely separate themselves from international terrorism and respect the rights of women and minorities. It’s time to see if they’re serious.
“Recent developments may give us an opening: the recent Afghan government ceasefire, the Taliban’s separate but reciprocal ceasefire, a potential convergence of interest against the growing threat of the ISIS offshoot in Afghanistan.
“So far, we’ve squandered that opportunity. We’ve heard nothing about how we plan to seize on this ceasefire.
“And that’s no real surprise, because—as I have been fighting for many, many months now—the Administration doesn’t prioritize diplomacy. The State Department Office of the Inspector General found that the bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs “lost both staff and expertise” as a result of Trump’s reckless hollowing-out of the State Department. Among those cuts were the experts on peace talks with the Taliban and reconciliation.
“So Ambassador Wells, now that the hiring freeze is over, we’ll be interested in hearing how the Administration plans to reconstitute this expertise. We cannot miss the next diplomatic opportunity because we don’t have diplomats up to the job.
“And diplomacy is going to be at the center of solving this challenge. After many years of war, it’s crystal clear that there is no military solution to end the fighting in Afghanistan. But that doesn’t foreclose a path to peace that advances American security interests. Now is the time to make peace and security our number-one goal and to implement a strategy in Afghanistan that will help us achieve it.
“We owe this to the women and men who serve our country in uniform; to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice fighting this war; and to those who perished on September 11, 2001 in my home city of New York.
“So I look forward to your testimony on this, I know you’ve started and we’re very happy to have you here. I thank you again, Mr. Chairman. And I yield back.”
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