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Chairman Menendez’s Opening Remarks at Hearing on U.S. Policy in Afghanistan

Washington, DC – U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the below statement, as prepared for delivery, at today’s hearing titled “U.S. Policy In Afghanistan and the Regional Implications of the 2014 Transition.”                                                                      

I would like to thank both of our witnesses for joining us today as we consider U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the regional implications of the drawdown of international forces.

“This hearing comes at a critical time – the President has announced his drawdown plan, the Bergdahl transfer took place, and a second round of presidential elections was held on Saturday. The images of Afghans, especially women, lining up to vote were inspiring and a testament to a broad commitment to the democratic process. But, no matter who ultimately wins, the incoming government will face significant challenges – some of crisis proportions.

“First, I have real concerns about the viability of the Afghan economy which has already begun to contract with the drawdown of international forces. According to SIGAR, U.S. assistance over the past seven years accounted for about 75 percent of the country’s GDP. I understand that Afghanistan will require assistance, both off and on budget, for quite some time. But what I have never seen is a credible and comprehensive plan for real sustainability in Afghanistan that incorporates past projects and future work.

“To continue to support robust assistance, I will need to see a serious examination of project sustainability.

“Second, and above all, the new government will face an ongoing security challenge. The Afghan National Security Forces performed well during the last fighting season and protected voters during these two rounds of elections. But as we look forward, the ANSF still does not have the logistical capabilities nor close air support that will be required in the ongoing fight against the insurgency.

“Finally, this hearing will also explore the regional implications of the drawdown. Pakistan announced a full scale operation into North Waziristan over the weekend, a long overdue move that indicates that their government is taking the threat from cross-border terrorist groups more seriously. We have heard that our friends in India – and the governments of Central Asia – are concerned about what the drawdown will mean for regional stability in the years ahead.

“So, today, I hope that we will hear the administration's vision for security in the region and how U.S. interests will be protected in this dynamic yet volatile part of the world.  Will the threat posed by terrorist groups in the region change following the drawdown of US troops? How will our security cooperation with countries in the region evolve?

“It must be said, Afghanistan is not Iraq, but it is hard not to draw comparisons to today's security situation in Iraq and what we could see in the coming years as we wind down our presence in Afghanistan. At the end of the day, we have to guard against letting history repeat itself because of decisions we make – or actions we fail to take. Today, I hope our panelists will help clearly lay out the choices that lay ahead.

“Frankly, last month, when the administration announced plans to completely draw down forces from Afghanistan by 2016, I was concerned about the plan, and I still have concerns. We have made hard-fought, but fragile, gains in Afghanistan that need to be protected through continued support of the ANSF and the Afghan government.

“Finally, alongside our regional security efforts, the administration has embarked on a New Silk Road initiative which seeks to strengthen Afghanistan’s economic ties in the region. In my view, this could be a boon for Afghanistan's economy but I am concerned that longstanding barriers to regional cooperation may prove too great to overcome.

“I look forward to hearing in detail from Ambassador Dobbins how this vision is being translated into reality and what challenges lie ahead.”