KABUL, Afghanistan — On the first visit to Afghanistan by Senate Democrats since President Barack Obama's decision to send more than 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Carl Levin of Michigan and Al Franken of Minnesota Wednesday reported signs of progress and expressed optimism that a Taliban takeover of the U.S.-backed government can be averted.
Unlike two much larger Republican delegations that visited last week, however, neither Levin nor Franken endorsed Obama's troop surge, and Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he'd have done things differently.
"It's a reasonable decision, though not one that I would have made," he said, adding that he favored sending additional troops to train and support Afghan forces, but not for combat. Still, he said that he expected Democrats would back Obama when he comes to request a supplemental appropriation to pay for the rising cost of the Afghan war.
A new United Nations report on civilian casualties Wednesday painted a stark picture of the fighting, and put the onus on the Taliban for a 14 percent rise in civilian deaths. Of the 2,412 civilians killed last year, the U.N. attributed 70 percent to the Taliban, and 25 percent to the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan security forces.
The Taliban were responsible for 1,630 civilian deaths, up from 1,160 in 2008, the report said. Of those, 1,054 were victims of suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices, while 225 were victims of assassinations and executions.
The report said the Taliban had targeted government or international forces, but they often carried out attacks in places frequented by civilians. It charged the Taliban had "demonstrated a significant disregard for the suffering inflicted on civilians."
By contrast, the Afghan government and its U.S.-led backers had taken "strategic and specific steps" that reduced the number of civilian deaths by 28 percent from 2008. It said 359 civilians were killed in aerial attacks, or 61 percent of civilian deaths attributed to pro-government forces.
However, the report also said that Afghan forces conducted a large number of search and seizure operations that "often involved excessive use of force, destruction to property and cultural insensitivity, particularly towards women."
The report came out as Levin and Franken were flying out of the Afghan capital. However, they hardly mentioned the Taliban to reporters at the Kabul airport military terminal, except to express the hope that lower-level fighters and even commanders could be integrated into the national army.
"What I saw here is almost totally positive," Levin said. He singled out the policy of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, "partnering" U.S. troops with their Afghan counterparts. In contrast to last summer, when U.S. Marines mounted an offensive in Helmand province with only one Afghan soldier for three Marines, the ratio is now 1:1, he said.
This was Franken's first visit as a senator. The comedian and author, who was elected by a razor-thin margin, had been in Afghanistan on four previous occasions to entertain U.S. troops.
Both senators said they were told that Afghans are now volunteering for the Army and police in record numbers — with 11,000 now in training, compared with 3,000 to 4,000 in November. Others are being turned away due to a severe shortage of trainers, for which U.S. allies were to blame.
They quoted Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, who's in charge of training operations, as crediting Obama's West Point speech, and specifically his decision to set July 2011 as the start of the withdrawal of U.S. troops, as spurring Afghans to join the security forces. When the recruiting spike was first noted last month, however, published reports quoted Caldwell as attributing the rush to pay raises for soldiers in high combat parts of Afghanistan. Other reports cited a dearth of construction and farming jobs during the harsh Afghan winter.
By contrast, the two Republican-led missions not only backed the U.S. troop surge, but also urged Obama not to end it.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican member on Levin's committee, said here on Jan. 7 that the July 2011 date for starting a U.S. withdrawal was "artificial and should only be based by conditions on the ground."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, said that Afghanistan and the U.S. "are linked for generations to come." Sen. John Thune of South Dakota called Afghanistan "ground zero in the war on terrorism," and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming stressed: "we don't want to be held strictly to time lines that could prevent the sort of victory and success we all know is critical."
A few days later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and four other senators, including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, came with a different interpretation of Obama's policy than Levin and Franken offered.
The summer target date "doesn't mean an automatic drawdown," McConnell told a Washington press conference this week. "It's based on conditions on the ground."
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