Chris Coons: Mideast Protests Haven't Reached Afghanistan

WASHINGTON -- While the protests in the Middle East continue to spread, with citizens now controlling Libya's second-largest city, the turmoil is taking more of a back seat in the politics of Afghanistan, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Monday.

Freshman Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) visited Afghanistan and Pakistan this past weekend, his first trip abroad since his election, he said in a conference call with reporters. While there, he and fellow Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) met with area officials -- from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to local tribal leaders -- as well as members of the U.S.-led military coalition, including Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Coons said there were some "high-level" discussions about Mideast unrest in Pakistan, including the role the United States and its allies were playing and what the path forward would be. But in Afghanistan, he said, the focus remained on the security, reconstruction and development efforts that still consume coalition forces more than nine years after they invaded the country in November 2001.

"There was very little conversation about it in Afghanistan," Coons said of the protests elsewhere. "The challenges and the circumstances are already demanding enough, and people there are fully focused on the circumstances locally."

Coons said his primary goal for the trip was to get a sense of how the counterinsurgency strategy championed by Petraeus is progressing in Afghanistan, and how the populace is responding to it. He seemed pleased with the results, but said he was troubled by what he described as a lack of cooperation from the nation's neighbor to the south.

"[O]ur biggest problem in Afghanistan is Pakistan," Coons said. "In the meetings in Pakistan with the elected military leadership and in every single meeting in Afghanistan ... everyone recognizes that until Pakistan gets in this fight with us and stops providing sanctuary to the very Taliban who are crossing over the border into southern Afghanistan and attacking our troops, or the extremists and al Qaeda leadership in northern Waziristan who are coordinating a lot of the activity, or the Haqqani network -- to just pick three examples -- until they step up and engage fully, I have real doubts about whether we can ultimately be successful."

The senator credited the Pakistanis with putting 140,000 troops in the field and targeting members of the Taliban. But those efforts, he said, were limited to protecting Pakistan, rather than the kind of regional security partnership he sees as key.

"So if I have one major takeaway or one question that I'm going to press with my fellow members of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate and with the administration -- Secretary Clinton and the president or vice president -- it will be this: The enormous costs that we face in pursuing our strategy in Afghanistan, in terms of lives and money and time, are only going to be successful if we really bear down and focus with the relationship with Pakistan, and making sure we do everything we can to close these sanctuaries and get Pakistan engaged in the fight," he said.

"In the absence of that -- even though we are making great progress and even though we have a good strategy and even though we have incredible and impressive troops -- I have serious doubts whether we'll ultimately be successful."

Pakistani officials are looking for more money from the United States with fewer conditions and less delay, Coons said, along with more intelligence-sharing.

When asked by The Huffington Post if some of the U.S. funding for Afghanistan should be shifted to Pakistan, Coons replied, "I'd say the short answer is yes."