President Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Pakistan predicted Tuesday that the United States will soon crush al Qaeda, nearly 11 years after its attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon pushed Washington into the war on terrorism.
“We are virtually within grasp of defeating al Qaeda as an organization,” Richard Olson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He testified before the committee along with James B. Cunningham, the nominee to serve as ambassador to Afghanistan.
Mr. Olson said that the main terrorist threat in Pakistan comes from the Haqqani Network, a militant group along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that pioneered suicide bombings in Afghanistan and is allied with the Taliban, the brutal former rulers of Afghanistan who are fighting to regain control of the country.
Some U.S. officials suspect Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, secretly supports the Haqqani Network.
Mr. Olson, a career diplomat and a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, said the U.S. must encourage Afghan and Pakistani officials to “focus on concrete steps to support Afghanistan.”
“This includes squeezing insurgents — most notably the Haqqani-Taliban Network — which threaten to spoil nascent Afghan reconciliation efforts and which target Afghans, as well as U.S. personnel,” he said.
Mr. Olson added that Pakistan has suffered greatly in the war against terrorism.
“Pakistan has its own challenge in combating extremists that have killed almost 30,000 soldiers and Pakistani civilians,” he said.
Mr. Olson also said part of his job as ambassador would be to work to improve U.S.-Pakistani relations that were damaged last year by the secret U.S. commando raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan and by a U.S. attack on a Pakistani border post that killed 24 Pakistani troops. Pakistan retaliated by closing NATO supply routes to Afghanistan for about seven months.
“We are committed to putting this relationship on more stable footing,” he said.
In his own testimony, Mr. Cunningham said the United States is “tuning a page” in Afghanistan, as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from the country in 2014.
“Our core goal in Afghanistan is to defeat al Qaeda and prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a safe haven for terrorists,” he said.
U.S.-led troops toppled the Taliban government and drove al Qaeda out of its hideouts in Afghanistan, after al Qaeda terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people in the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
Mr. Cunningham, now deputy ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, noted that the Obama administration recently made a commitment to support Afghanistan, even after the U.S. troops leave.
“We have made clear to Afghans and to the region that the security transition does not mean we are abandoning Afghanistan,” he said. “And the Taliban appears to be taking notice.”
The Taliban are “debating and signaling an openness to negotiations” with the Afghan government, but the militants must first renounce violence, cut ties with al Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution, Mr. Cunningham said.
“I will not play down the difficulties,” he added, referring to efforts to build up Afghan security forces and fight political corruption.
However, he noted that Afghans have made “substantial gains” since the overthrow of the Taliban regime, which imposed a strict form of Islamic law that was especially brutal on women.
More than 8 million Afghan children, including more than 2 million girls, now are enrolled in schools. In 2001, Afghanistan had fewer than 1 million students and “nearly none of the girls,” Mr. Cunningham said.
“Ultimately,” he added, “the gains of the last decade must be sustained by the Afghan people themselves.”
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