US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday defended the White House’s twin strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan, saying it could battle insurgents even as it tries to nudge them toward a peace deal.
Clinton faced questions from the US House Foreign Affairs Committee about US President Barack Obama’s hopes to clinch a peace deal between the Taliban and its militant allies, such as the Haqqani network, and the Afghan government, which would allow foreign forces to safely withdraw.
The top US diplomat made ripples last week when she -announced during a visit to Islamabad that the US had held a meeting with representatives of the Haqqani group, blamed for a recent attack on the US embassy in Kabul. Simultaneously, she pressured Pakistani leaders to take military action against that very group in hide-outs along the Afghan border.
“So which is it, Madam Secretary, crackdown or negotiate with the Haqqani network or a little bit of both?” US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican committee chair, asked Clinton.
“It’s both,” Clinton said. “We want to fight, talk and build all at the same time. Part of the reason for that is to test whether these organizations have any willingness to negotiate in good faith. There’s evidence going both ways.”
Reconciliation has become an increasingly central — and public — goal in Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan as Washington initiates the withdrawal of the 33,000 extra troops he sent to Afghanistan after overhauling his war policy in 2009.
Some lawmakers fear Obama’s plan to steadily remove US troops could jeopardize what progress has been made on security and are asking whether a peace deal can be had with militants who appear determined to fight the US to the bitter end.
While military commanders claim to have driven the Taliban out of many of its southern strongholds, security has deteriorated elsewhere and a series of high-profile attacks in Kabul, such as the Sept. 13 embassy attack, has shaken Afghans’ outlook.
That bold attack set off weeks of recrimination between Washington and Islamabad as some US officials accused Pakistani intelligence of backing the Haqqani group in the attack. The Obama administration also came under intensified political pressure at home to officially designate the Haqqani network a terrorist group.
Clinton, who has revealed few details of the reconciliation program, told lawmakers she was “pursuing every thread” in trying to get peace talks going, including a meeting over the summer with Haqqani representatives.
“It was not a negotiation,” she said. “This was done in part because I think the Pakistanis hope to be able to move the Haqqani network toward some kind of peace negotiation and the answer was an attack on our embassy.”
Even supporters of Obama’s Afghan policy pressed Clinton about whether insurgents could be trusted.
“As much as we all want war to end ... I’m concerned that allowing these extremist groups to assume leadership positions ... would threaten the gains we’ve made on counterterrorism, women’s rights and counter-narcotics,” the committee’s top Democrat Howard Berman said.