WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Nelson wants the benchmarks he championed for the Afghan war to get more specific about the transfer of security responsibilities from Americans to the Afghan government.
The Nebraska Democrat brought up the need for a new way of measuring progress toward U.S. goals during Leon Panetta's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. President Obama has tapped the current CIA director to replace Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.
Thursday's hearing covered a wide range of topics, including the future U.S. troop presence in Iraq, the situation in Libya and the need for defense budget discipline. On Afghanistan, Panetta said progress has been made but that progress is fragile.
He was pressed by several senators about the pace of troop withdrawals set to begin later this summer, but he avoided committing to specific numbers.
He said the administration would base withdrawals on conditions on the ground. The ultimate goal in Afghanistan, he said, is to prevent it from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
Nelson, a senior member of the committee, told Panetta he was introducing legislation to require benchmarks on the transition to Afghan responsibility. Those benchmarks would be included in the progress reports the Pentagon is required to provide regularly to Congress.
Nelson has pushed for benchmarks in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying he sees them as a way to avoid gray areas about whether the U.S. is winning or losing in Afghanistan while providing guidance for policymakers.
“It gives us an opportunity to decide what level of progress have we made, what remains to be accomplished,” Nelson said.
He asked Panetta to identify benchmarks that would be helpful, and Panetta outlined four areas: levels of violence, the stability of each individual district, development of Afghan security forces and the government's responsibility.
The reports being provided to Congress already cover those areas, but Nelson spokesman Jake Thompson said the new benchmarks the senator has in mind would be directed more specifically toward progress in transferring responsibility, rather than the overall mission.
Pakistan also received its share of attention during the Capitol Hill hearing.
Nelson asked Panetta about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan after Osama bin Laden was found living under the noses of many of Pakistan's retired and active military leaders in the town of Abbottabad.
Nelson said the U.S. can't have a friend working against its interests.
“It's a complicated relationship, we understand, but the American people are really quite concerned about double-dealing,” Nelson said.
Panetta said Pakistan is conducting an investigation, but so far there's no clear evidence bin Laden was aided by those within the government. Generally, Panetta said, there's work to be done on improving relations.
“There are some areas where frankly we have good discussions, we have good communications, but there are a number of areas where, frankly, we don't have that level of trust or communication capability,” he said.
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