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Senators, Visiting Afghanistan, Warn Trump

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    Posted: 04-Jul-2017 at 3:59pm
Senators, Visiting Afghanistan, Warn Trump Over Diplomatic Vacancies

KABUL, Afghanistan — A delegation of United States senators visiting Afghanistan issued a stark warning on Tuesday to President Trump to fill vacant embassy and State Department positions here in order to better address the country’s mounting military and political crises.

Led by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, the American delegation in Kabul voiced what has been a concern for months now in the absence of a permanent American ambassador. The civilian diplomatic mission here has been led by a chargé d’affaires, Hugo Llorens, who was called in from imminent retirement to help as a stopgap during a time when the Afghan government has faced political storms.

“All of us realize that it’s more than just dropping bombs that will win in Afghanistan,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said. “Secretary Tillerson needs to come to Afghanistan quickly.”

Mr. Graham described the lack of diplomatic focus as unnerving and called on the administration to appoint someone “to manage this portfolio” as well as fill many of the vacant positions in the State Department dealing with South and Central Asia.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, said the military had expressed concern about “the hollowing out of the State Department.”

The issue is again highlighting the United States military’s outsize role in Afghanistan, with American commanders even shouldering some of the diplomatic efforts around the country.

President Trump is expected to announce a troop increase of several thousand in addition to the roughly 8,800 American forces currently in Afghanistan in a dual mission of training and assisting Afghan forces and carrying out counterterrorism missions.

Pentagon officials have already hinted that the new strategy would not put a timeline on the increased military presence, essentially drawing the United States into another prolonged chapter of a war that has already dragged on for 16 years.

“The political patience at home will depend on the clear articulation of a strategy going forward,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, said. “We need a strategy in the United States that defines our role in Afghanistan, defines our objective and explains how we are going to get from here to there.”

The United States’ diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan in recent years have been criticized for the turnover rate, what some officials have come to call “an annual lobotomy.”

Most of the midranking diplomats only come for one-year terms, and by the time they understand the complexity of the place, they are already headed for their next assignment.

The concern has grown in recent months as many of the senior positions in the State Department dealing with regional policy remain vacant, and the position of special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan was recently scrapped.

The role of the United States ambassador to Kabul has particularly been crucial in the past two years, as the coalition government brokered by former Secretary of State John Kerry has required constant hand-holding and mediation.

The coalition partners, President Ashraf Ghani and the government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, have struggled to see eye to eye on issues, throwing the government into long periods of stagnation amid a Taliban resurgence.

During one stretch of crisis in the relationship between the two leaders last year, P. Michael McKinley, the former ambassador, was meeting the two men almost daily and shuttling between other prominent leaders to help keep the arrangement together.

The political pressure on the government has only grown in recent months, after security forces opened fire and killed protesters outside the palace gates.

Much of Kabul remained under lockdown, with the palace bunkered by shipping containers stacked at its main entrances as protesters pitched tents outside. The tents were removed by violence again, with police officers killing two protesters when they forcibly removed the last tent.

Three of the country’s main political parties, including those led by Mr. Ghani’s vice president as well as his foreign minister, recently announced a coalition which is expected to further the pressure on the president.

They accuse Mr. Ghani’s government of keeping power monopolized by a small circle at the palace. At the center of the new coalition is Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the leader of Junbish Party and Mr. Ghani’s vice president.

The coalition was announced in Ankara, Turkey, where General Dostum is currently in de facto exile. The Afghan judicial system is trying to prosecute him and his bodyguards over accusations that they tortured and raped a political rival.

The security situation in Afghanistan has increasingly worsened over the past couple of years, with the Taliban overrunning districts, surrounding cities and inflicting heavy casualties on Afghan forces.

Afghanistan’s acting minister of defense, Maj. Gen. Tariq Shah Bahrami, told a news conference on Tuesday that there was fighting in 21 of the country’s 34 provinces, and that government forces were facing “fierce fighting” in seven of those provinces.

Heavy fighting continued for a third day on the outskirts of Kunduz, a city the Taliban overran twice in one year. Afghan forces were trying to clear Taliban checkpoints on the highway connecting Kunduz to Kabul.

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