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Hill Embraces Obama’s New Afghan Policy

Updated: March 30, 2:31 p.m.

Lawmakers hailed President Barack Obama’s military strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan within minutes of his Friday morning announcement, praising the renewed focus on combating al-Qaida and the Taliban and enlisting foreign allies to help rebuild the region.

“President Obama’s new strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan is realistic and bold in a critical region where our policy needs rescuing,— Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in a statement. “Many of us have long advocated more troops for training Afghan security forces and a clear mission for our forces that are risking their lives, and this new policy is a down payment in that direction.—

Kerry and Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), the committee’s ranking member, are co-sponsors of legislation to authorize $1.5 billion for rebuilding efforts in Pakistan. Obama asked Congress to move quickly on the legislation, a key component of his Pakistan strategy.

A separate piece of legislation, sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), would authorize the president to establish “reconstruction opportunity zones— in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

That bill would “promote much needed economic opportunity and hope for people in this war-torn region and has the support of the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan,— Van Hollen said in a statement released shortly after Obama’s announcement.

Early reactions from the Hill were uniformly supportive, with only mild criticism coming from Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who called on Obama to send even more in troops to the region over the next two years. While Obama has set a goal of boosting the Afghan military to 134,000 troops by 2011, Lieberman set a benchmark of 250,000 troops.

“We must recognize that we still face many challenges in Afghanistan. We still must overhaul our military command structure, which is dysfunctional, and put in place a comprehensive civil-military campaign plan to defeat the insurgency,— Lieberman said in a statement.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who led the charge in the Senate to withdraw troops from Iraq, said he was “pleased with the necessary emphasis on Pakistan,— but underscored the need for the president to pay particular attention to the country.

“I am concerned that the new strategy may still be overly Afghan-centric when it needs to be even more regional,— Feingold cautioned.

Overall, however, House and Senate Democratic leaders applauded Obama’s pledge to send 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, and supported his call for benchmarks to measure success in the troubled region. Obama deployed 17,000 troops to Afghanistan last month, bringing the total deployment to 23,000.

“By aiding Pakistan in their efforts to defeat terrorists, investing in and training Afghan Security Forces and their Army, creating conditions to marginalize insurgents and foster democracy, and cooperating with our allies to achieve these goals, we can strengthen our global counterterrorism efforts,— Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. “The president’s strategic and comprehensive approach is the right plan to stabilize Afghanistan and to protect the American people.—

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