- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

Top Bush administration officials yesterday insisted the international effort in Afghanistan is succeeding, a claim that met with deep, bipartisan skepticism at a Capitol Hill hearing.

Richard A. Boucher, assistant secretary of state of South and Central Asian affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that U.S. and allied forces have scored significant military victories against the Taliban and al Qaeda, while international reconstruction money has helped build roads, reopen schools and clinics, and boost the struggling central government in Kabul.

“Nobody can tell me [Afghanistan] is not going in a positive direction,” said Mr. Boucher, who returned from a tour of the region last week.

But U.S. officials have been stung by a pair of high-powered, independent surveys released this week which paint a much bleaker picture of the seven-year U.S. campaign. The reports said that insurgents have regrouped in recent months while a flourishing narcotics trade and a feeble central government are undermining reconstruction efforts.

“Make no mistake — NATO is not winning in Afghanistan,” was a central finding of a study done by the Atlantic Council of the United States. “Urgent changes are required now to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed or failing state.”

Retired Gen. James L. Jones, former NATO commander and co-chairman of a second, equally critical report on Afghanistan, told the Senate panel the United States and its allies had experienced a severe “loss of momentum” in the years since they helped oust the fundamentalist Taliban regime in the months after the September 11 attacks.

On issues like the drug trade or building up Afghanistan’s judicial system and security forces, “if there’s been any progress, it’s barely discernible,” he said.

Committee chairman Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, said the Bush administration’s focus on the conflict in Iraq had hurt the effort in Afghanistan.

“We’re not succeeding in Afghanistan, quite simply, because we haven’t made success there our priority,” he said.

Richard Holbrooke, U.N. ambassador and a senior State Department official in the Clinton administration, sharply criticized the administration witnesses for challenging the pessimistic private reports.

“I hope you will not accept what you heard in the previous testimony because it is a formula for another hearing like this in six or 12 months when the situation will be even worse,” he said.

A suicide bomber blew himself up yesterday inside a mosque in southern Afghanistan, killing a deputy provincial governor and five other worshippers in the latest assassination of a senior official.

The bomber struck in the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, killing the deputy governor, Pir Mohammad, provincial police chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal told the Associated Press.

The mosque blast happened hours after another suicide bomber in a car targeted an Afghan army bus in Kabul, killing one civilian and wounding four other persons, including a soldier, officials said, the AP reported.

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