Defining Victory

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Washington, DC – This week, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved an amendment to the fiscal year 2012 Defense Department appropriations bill, which sets up an independent, nonpartisan Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group (APSG) to provide recommendations for future U.S. military missions in the region. The measure, proposed by Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), would establish a panel modeled on the 2006 Iraq Study Group (ISG), chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. It’s something the Obama administration should have done – as President George W. Bush did by executive order – a long time ago. Let’s hope it’s not too late, because the U.S. “drawdown” from Afghanistan already has begun.

According to the legislation, the APSG will conduct a forward-looking assessment of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and deliver a report to Congress and the commander in chief within four months. Rep. Wolf – full disclosure here: he’s my congressman and a friend – says, “We are 10 years into our nation’s longest-running war and the American people and their elected representatives do not have a clear sense of what we are aiming to achieve, why it is necessary and how far we are from attaining our goal.”

He’s right. But they may not be paying attention at the White House. The O-Team ignored Mr. Wolf’s recommendations to establish an APSG for nearly a year. Instead, the administration has been conducting an internal-only “Afghan Strategy Review.” The International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) commander, General David Petraeus, now in Washington for confirmation hearings to become CIA director, reportedly hand-carried his recommendations for the size and scope of troop reductions, including advice not to replace an 800-man unit slated to return home. Given current events, we should expect Mr. Obama to announce his overall plan for “downsizing” the U.S. troop commitment in Afghanistan in a matter of days, not months.

News reports from the region are sparse – and rarely good. Afghanistan’s neighbors – Iran and Pakistan – are becoming progressively problematic. Both countries are engaged in moving opium, heroin and morphine base out of Afghanistan to markets in Russia, Europe and even the U.S. The Iranians increasingly are involved in providing safe-havens and logistical support to insurgents operating along Afghanistan’s western border. And since the May 2 U.S. special operations raid that took out al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, Pakistani officials have become spectacularly uncooperative. This week, Islamabad’s security services arrested at least five of the local informants who helped gather intelligence on bin Laden’s lair.

The Obama administration – consumed with a faltering U.S. economy, abysmal unemployment numbers, a blooming federal deficit and ever higher prices for food and energy – has failed thus far to make the case for persevering in the shadows of the Hindu Kush.

Recent opinion surveys and polls indicate that American public support – and therefore congressional support – for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has diminished rather than risen since the bin Laden operation. And now the rising costs and uncertain outcome for the protracted U.S.-NATO operation in Libya make the task of maintaining political support for the Afghan mission an even greater challenge.

The Karzai government in Kabul hasn’t been much help in altering a growing perception of failure. Afghanistan’s problems with corruption, venality, incompetence and opium production have overshadowed successes on the battlefield. The failure of Afghan leaders to establish a functioning judicial system at any level of government remains a major impediment to establishing rule of law throughout the country.

These issues have become the principal focus of lawmakers and military and political leaders in Washington and NATO capitals. Leon Panetta, the next defense secretary; Ryan Crocker, our new ambassador in Kabul; and David Petraeus, soon-to-be CIA director, should expect these issues to persist – no matter how many troops Mr. Obama decides to withdraw in the next few days.

The “negatives” are real, but they obscure some dramatic successes. In the eight months since our Fox News “War Stories” team returned from our last deployment to Afghanistan, an additional 20 percent of the Afghan population has been liberated from Taliban control. Helmand and Kandahar provinces – once strongholds of the Taliban movement – are now largely under the jurisdiction of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and their ISAF partners.

Since the Obama administration is unlikely to wait for a report from a new study group, the growth in size, skill and competence of ANSF soldiers and police ought to be the most important factor in determining how many U.S. troops to withdraw – and how quickly. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be in Afghanistan to evaluate ANSF effectiveness in providing protection for their countrymen from internal and foreign enemies. That may well be, after all the blood and treasure we have expended, the best definition of victory in Afghanistan.

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