By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 13, 2007 – Afghanistan is an important country in the Middle East, and engagement in the region is crucial to U.S. and NATO success there, a top Defense Department leader said in congressional testimony today. "It is important to remind ourselves that our involvement in Afghanistan should be viewed in a broader context, and not just simply our troop presence as a result of 9/11 and the place where the terrorists came from," Mary Beth Long, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international affairs, said before the House Armed Services Committee.
Long pointed out the important position Afghanistan occupies in the Middle East. It shares a long border with Pakistan, the world's largest Muslim nation, which has nuclear capabilities and ungoverned tribal areas. To the west is Iran, a growing regional power and nuclear aspirant that is involved in undermining U.S. efforts in Iraq. To the northeast is China and to the north are Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, all former Soviet republics struggling to become responsible international players.
Afghanistan is strategically placed in the middle of this neighborhood, astride trade routes and with access to important natural resources, Long said.
The nation is a traditional Muslim country where the people have committed themselves to a democratically elected government and where coalition forces are still welcome, she noted.
"While (Afghans) have the will, they need continued involvement," Long said. "They need our commitment, our expertise, and (the) assistance of the U.S. and the international community in order to succeed."
Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, commander of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan, said at the hearing that regional engagement is essential to U.S. and NATO success in that country. He noted the importance of Pakistan, which faces threats of extremism within its own borders while contributing to the global war on terror.
"As we work towards improving governance, economic development and security in Afghanistan, we must maintain and strengthen cooperative relations with Pakistan," Eikenberry said.
The significant near-term threat to success in Afghanistan is the insurgency, focused in the south, Eikenberry said. However, the longer-term threat is the loss of legitimacy of the government of Afghanistan. For that reason, non-military operations must be increased to rebuild civil society and empower the Afghan government, he said.
More than 32,000 Afghan national Army troops and 59,000 Afghan police have been trained and equipped to date, Eikenberry said. The fiscal 2007 supplemental budget request would permit the Afghan army to expand to the internationally agreed level of 70,000 and the national police to increase to 82,000 by the end of 2008, he said. The supplemental measure also would equip the army and police with the protection, firepower, weapons, enhanced training and mobility required to meet the insurgent threat.
According to a recent survey, almost 90 percent of the Afghan people consider reconstruction and economic development the most important requirement to improve their lives, Eikenberry said. To this end, the international community must provide more resources in the areas of governance, justice, counternarcotics and economic development, he said.
"The leadership of Afghanistan is committed to being an active partner in the global war on terror in the long term," Eikenberry said. "The Afghan people and their nation's leaders are absolutely worthy of our trust, our confidence and our support. It is in the United States' national interest to gain and keep a partner and a friend who we can count on in this critical region of the world."
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