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Official defends optimistic assessment in Afghanistan

  • Story Highlights
  • Richard Boucher testifies before Senate Foreign Relations Committee
  • The assistant secretary of state says Afghanistan is going in the right direction
  • Democratic and Republican senators call Boucher's assessment overly optimistic
  • Afghanistan Study Group: Country risks sliding into a failed state
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From Elise Labott
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration defended its strategy in Afghanistan on Thursday to skeptical lawmakers who warned the campaign against the Taliban is losing steam.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher painted an optimistic picture of the situation in the country, saying there has been a "profound change" since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

"No one can tell me that Afghanistan is not going in the right direction," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Boucher's comments came a day after the release of a high-level independent report warning Afghanistan risks sliding into a failed state and becoming a "forgotten war." The Afghanistan Study Group blamed the growing insurgency and deteriorating international support.

But Boucher argued Afghanistan has turned from one of the world's poorest countries into a nation with an army, a police force, and children going to school, as well as electricity and cell phones.

Both Democratic and Republican senators called Boucher's assessment overly optimistic.

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"After more than six years and more than $6 billion, the most we can claim is that the life of ordinary Afghans isn't as bad as it was under the Taliban," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Delaware, the committee chairman and a former presidential contender.

"We've got to aim much higher, I think, and we have to deliver much more."

The Bush administration "firmly believes that we are about to turn a corner and that we just need to give our policy a chance to work," Biden said. "I am curious what that policy is, because it's not clear to me. But that is exactly, as well, what we have been hearing for the past five years, that the tide is about to turn."

The Republican co-chair, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, said the central government in Kabul lacks control in much of the rest of the country, and he warned, "At some point, the patience of America's allies and our own people will run out and they are going to say we've had enough."

"I am not really certain we have a plan for Afghanistan," he added.

Boucher was also put on the defensive about the resurgence of the Taliban in the country and the increased number of suicide attacks. Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, noted there were 77 suicide bombings in 2007, while there were only five between 2001 and 2005.

Boucher attributed the rise in attacks to the Taliban's losses on the battlefield, saying the insurgents have had to turn to other tactics, like kidnappings and bombings.

He said the United States is "better off" in limiting control of the Taliban, but admitted, "We have been fighting a lot more."

"The strategy now is to win the war," he said.

With the United States trying to persuade NATO allies to contribute more troops to the campaign against the Taliban, he said the international community needs to expand its efforts in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has plans to send about 3,200 Marines to the country, bringing the U.S. total to about 30,000 troops.

Meanwhile, the co-chairs of the Afghanistan Study Group -- retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones and former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering -- joined former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke before senators to call for a coordinated effort to refocus NATO's military and civil strategy in Afghanistan.

The panels, along with senators, criticized U.S. counter-narcotics efforts in the country.

Assistant Secretary of State David T. Johnson acknowledged 93 percent of the world's opium comes from Afghanistan, particularly from the Taliban-strong southern part of the country. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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