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Congressional support to continue aiding Afghanistan over the long term will require a better understanding by the American public of the progress made despite well-publicized setbacks, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Shahmahmood asking Levin a question
USIP Afghanistan Country Director Shahmahmood Miakhel asks Senator Carl Levin a question during the event.

Levin said he was hopeful about the development of a “free, peaceful and unified” Afghanistan. But he lamented relentless American media coverage of Taliban attacks and corruption while outlets downplay genuinely positive developments such as the 3 million girls now going to school and the resilience of the 350,000-strong Afghan security forces. He said the Afghan army and police have exceeded NATO commanders’ expectations, successfully responding to Taliban attacks and safeguarding two rounds of presidential elections this year.

“What our publics believe, in a democracy such as ours, is important,” said Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is retiring after 36 years in the Senate. “The relentless negative focus of the press could have a serious negative effect on Afghanistan’s future.” The skepticism could dampen the willingness of Congress to continue supporting Afghanistan’s development despite the progress registered so far and the sacrifices of Afghan troops and civilians, he said.

“If the American people think we’ve failed, that we’ve wasted our resources, it’s less likely that Congress would do what we should do, which is to be steady and constant in our support, economically and otherwise, for Afghanistan,” he said. And, “while Afghanistan’s gains have been impressive, they remain reversible. Afghans continue to fear the United States will abandon them, as they believe that we did after the Soviets left in the early 1990s.”

Levin, who also touched on the battle in the Middle East against the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” militant group with a call for a buffer zone on the Turkey-Syria border, has been a persistent voice in favor of building up the Afghan army and police forces, saying the main reason to invest in those units is to allow U.S. and other coalition forces to withdraw as soon as feasible.

Although the U.S. plans to withdraw most troops by the end of this year, new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai’s government has signed a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. that governs the conduct of a residual force, and the U.S. has agreed to leave behind 9,800 military personnel to assist the Afghan forces with training, equipment, logistics and intelligence and counter-terrorism capabilities. Outside funding will continue to be needed for years to not only sustain the Afghan forces, but also to strengthen governing institutions as leaders try to shore up their domestic economy and government revenues.

U.S. military commanders have held out the possibility that they could recommend leaving American troops in Afghanistan beyond a new deadline for withdrawal of December 2016 should conditions warrant a shift. In the meantime, there also might be “new ways” to persuade Pakistan to pursue militant groups that are causing turmoil in neighboring Afghanistan, he said, without elaborating.

Principles for Progress

Levin outlined four key principles that helped achieve the progress recorded so far: broad international support for the NATO military efforts; training for local forces so they can defend their own people; pressure for unified, inclusive governance; and limits set for the U.S. troop presence to provide incentives for Afghanistan to get its own house in order.

“While public opinion polls show the Afghan people think that we’ve accomplished much and are glad that we came, polls in the United States show that Americans believe that our involvement in Afghanistan has failed,” Levin said.

The signing of the security agreement and the reopening of an investigation of billions of dollars lost in the Kabul Bank scandal are important signs that the new government is interested in serving its own people and in good relations with the West, Levin said. 

The senator noted that Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki refused to sign a similar status-of-forces agreement with the United States, prompting American troops to exit Iraq at the end of 2011. The collapse of Iraqi security forces in the face of the “Islamic State” sweep across the country’s north this year was seen by analysts partly as an illustration that the military wasn’t fully prepared to go it alone.

Levin expressed support for a vote, when the current Congress returns for a final session after the November elections, on the question of whether to authorize President Barack Obama to use military force against the “Islamic State.”  It would be “destructive to our drive to unite the world against ISIS” if Congress and the president appear divided, the senator said, using a common acronym for the militant group. Still, Levin said that, if Congress doesn’t conduct a vote, the president has the authority to act on his own in the U.S. national security interest.

“There is a real risk that the area [ISIS] controls can become a training ground and a launching pad for future attacks against the United States and our friends and our allies,” Levin said. “ISIS is terrorizing the Iraqi and Syrian people, enslaving and slaughtering and persecuting religious minorities, attacking schools and hospitals and cultural sites.”

No-Fly Zone

Still, he said a successful campaign against the group must be “visibly an Iraqi and Syrian fight, an Arab and Muslim fight,” Levin said. The U.S. should support the effort with training, equipment and air power, he said.

“Boots on the ground are needed, but they need to be Iraqi and Syrian boots,” Levin said. He also called for a buffer zone on the border of Turkey, a NATO ally, and Syria that would be secured by Turkish forces on the ground and a coalition no-fly zone in the air. The U.S. has escalated air strikes against the “Islamic State” militants in recent days as they threaten minority Kurds in the Syrian town of Kobani near the Turkish border.

The senator also said he saw the prospect of a “turning point” in which Islamic nations join with non-Islamic countries to jointly fight violent extremism.

Levin’s appearance is the second of three public events at USIP this week to highlight the continuing importance of Afghanistan not only for U.S. national security but also for the country and the region.

Yesterday, an American deputy assistant secretary of state and a U.S. deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan joined the deputy chief of mission from the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.,  and two Afghan officials – a deputy minister of trade, commerce and industries and an economic cooperation director in the foreign ministry -- to discuss the country’s economic development in an event co-hosted by the EastWest Institute. Tomorrow, experts from Afghanistan will discuss how new media and technology influenced this year’s elections and how they can be used to promote better governance going forward.

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