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Clinton: Civilian surge will also be drawn down

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday morning that the civilian surge in Afghanistan has peaked, a message that complements President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday night that the United States will withdraw its "surge" troops from the country by next summer..

"We have now reached the height of the civilian surge," Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Looking ahead, as the transition proceeds, we will shift our efforts from short-term stabilization projects to longer-term sustainable development that focuses on spurring growth and integrating Afghanistan into South Central Asia's economy."

The State Department and USAID have more than tripled the number of diplomats, development professionals, and other experts in Afghanistan since 2009, resulting in economic growth, less opium production, and greater educational opportunities for Afghans, she said.

"The aim of our civilian surge was to give Afghans a stake in their country's future and provide credible alternatives to extremism and insurgency -- it was not, nor was it ever designed, to solve all of Afghanistan's development challenges. Measured against these goals, and considering the obstacles we face, we are and should be encouraged by how much has been accomplished," Clinton said.

The focus going forward will be on diplomacy and supporting a reconciliation process that separates the insurgents from the terrorists, she added. Clinton promised that the United States would continue to push for the human rights and values that it has been espousing throughout the conflict.

"Any potential for peace will be subverted if women are marginalized or silenced. And the United States will not abandon our values or support a political process that undoes the social progress that has been made in the past decade," she said. "But we believe that a political solution that meets these conditions is possible."

She did not give details about how the structure or size of the civilian surge would change as U.S. forces begin to withdraw.

As part of the drive for a political solution,  the "core group" of the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan will meet for the third time next week, Clinton announced. The lead U.S. official in this effort is Special Representative Marc Grossman.

Clinton called on Pakistan to be an active player in the reconciliation process, and to improve its bilateral relationship with Afghanistan. Clinton also made the fiscal argument for civilian power, noting that "an entire year of civilian assistance in Afghanistan costs Americans the same amount as just 10 days of military operations."

Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) opened the hearing with a full throated endorsement of Obama's plan to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year and the remainder of the 33,000 surge troops by next summer.

"Because of the gains made in Afghanistan and in the intervening months, I believe it was from a position of strength that the president was able to lay out the next phase of our Afghan strategy," he said, echoing Obama's remarks nearly verbatim.

Kerry called the drawdown plan "significant" and portrayed it as a way to reap the benefits of the surge.

"If you really stop and think about it, we have met our major goals in Afghanistan as articulated by the president," he said. "We have come to the point where this mission can transition."

Kerry also warned Clinton that Congress was growing more and more disillusioned with the U.S. investment in Pakistan, even as Pakistan has increasingly become the center of gravity in the battle against al Qaeda.

"In many ways, the Afghanistan war is a sideshow to the main event next door," Kerry said. "Every senator is asking questions about this relationship and the appropriations people are particularly troubled as they try to figure out what's real in this relationship."

Kerry's GOP counterpart, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), called for more details from the administration and a realistic definition of success in Afghanistan.

"Troop withdrawals are warranted at this stage, but... our president should put forward a plan that focuses on more narrow goals for Afghanistan based on vital national interests and a more sober analysis of what can be achieved," Lugar said.

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Obama team: There hasn’t been a terrorist threat from Afghanistan “for the past seven or eight years”

One of the most prominent, remaining Obama administration justifications for continuing the war in Afghanistan is the need to squash the threat of attacks on the U.S. But top administration officials don't believe there has been a terrorist threat coming from Afghanistan since at least 2004.

"The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies," President Obama said in his Wednesday evening speech to the nation, where he promised to withdraw 10,000 troops this year and all 33,000 surge troops by next summer.

In a conference call with reporters earlier Wednesday, a "senior administration official" said no terrorist threat from Afghanistan has been present for 7 or 8 years, well before the Obama administration surged troops there in 2009.

"On the threat side, we haven't seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years. There has been clearly fighting and threats inside of Afghanistan, but the assessment of anywhere between 50, 75 or so al Qaeda types that are embedded in Haqqani units, basically, tactical fighting units inside of Afghanistan, they are focused inside Afghanistan with no indication at all that there is any effort within Afghanistan to use Afghanistan as a launching pad to carry out attacks outside of Afghan borders," the official said. "The threat has come from Pakistan over the past half-dozen years or so, and longer."

Later in the same conference call, the "senior administration official" repeated the administration's view that there's no terrorist threat coming from Afghanistan and used that assumption to argue there will be no danger in removing the surge troops.

"And so, in taking a look at the drawdown of U.S. troops, the 10,000 this year and then the 33,000 by next summer, it is certainly the view of the people who have been prosecuting this effort from the administration that this is not going to increase the threat," the official said. "Again, we don't see a transnational threat coming out of Afghanistan in terms of the terrorist threat and it's not going to affect at all the threat in Pakistan either."

Of course, if the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan, that could all change. Obama's GOP critics were quick to criticize the president for talking extensively about wrapping up the war and apparently going against the advice of ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus.

"When America goes to war, America needs to win. We need to close out the war successfully, and what that means now is not nation-building. What it means is to follow General Petraeus's advice and to get those security forces built up where they can pick up the slack as we draw down," said GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty.

"I think we have undercut a strategy that was working." Sen. Lindsey Graham said on CNN. "I think the 10,000 troops leaving this year is going to make this fighting season more difficult. Having all of the surge forces leave by next summer is going to compromise next summer's fighting season."

For those on both the left and right who wanted Obama to withdraw from Afghanistan even more quickly, the acknowledgement that no terrorist threat exists there only reinforces their argument for a speedy exit.

"Our troops have done everything we've asked them to. They've routed the Taliban, dismantled Al Qaeda, and facilitated democratic elections," said GOP candidate Jon Huntsman. "Now it is time we move to a focused counter-terror effort which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the President discussed tonight."

"It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the President laid out - and we will continue to press for a better outcome," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Meanwhile, former officials and experts complained that Obama's speech seemed to acknowledge that the U.S. will never be able to prevent the Taliban from playing a role in Afghanistan's future, but failed to spell out a diplomatic solution that addresses how to incorporate the Taliban into the Afghan government.

"I would have liked to have heard much more from him about a diplomatic strategy," Vali Nasr, a former top advisor to the late Richard Holbrooke, said on MSNBC immediately following the speech. "If you cannot end the war militarily, the only other way the war is going to go away is through some kind of deal in which the protagonists agree to a peace settlement. And we haven't done much of that. It hasn't been part of the debate about sending the troops in and it hasn't been a part of the debate of pulling troops out."

"Ultimately wars are fought on battlefields, but they have to finish around the table, and the administration hasn't really outlined how it is going to get there," Nasr said.