WASHINGTON -- Leading lawmakers voiced concern Wednesday that Afghanistan could again become a haven of chaos and terror unless the United States expands its peacekeeping role -- a proposal Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld firmly resisted during Congressional testimony that included several testy exchanges.
"We don't want to win this war and then lose the peace in the sense of seeing a return to chaos," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The two-hour hearing reflected growing concern on Capitol Hill that the stability of Afghanistan's fledgling government is being undermined by fighting among regional warlords.
The session also demonstrated that many in Congress are increasingly comfortable criticizing aspects of the war effort, in sharp contrast to the early months of the conflict when members feared that raising even minor questions would make them appear unpatriotic.
Several lawmakers not only challenged White House reluctance to deploy American soldiers as peacekeepers, but argued that the military made a major blunder by not using U.S. troops to seal off al-Qaida escape routes during the major battles of the war.
"For me, Operation Enduring Freedom has become operation enduring frustration," said Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga. "We still haven't killed or captured Osama bin Laden and his terrorist cadre. Do you happen to know where he is?"
Rumsfeld bristled at the line of questioning. "You can be frustrated if you want, I'm not," he said. He acknowledged that the United States does not know the terrorist mastermind's whereabouts, but argued that his capture was not the paramount goal of the war.
"He may be dead. He may be seriously wounded. He may be in Afghanistan, he may be somewhere else," Rumsfeld said. "But wherever he is, if he is, you can be certain he is having one dickens of a time operating his apparatus."
Much of the hearing focused on ongoing tensions between the White House and members of Congress over the appropriate scope of U.S. involvement in safeguarding the Afghan government and rebuilding the country's infrastructure.
The recent assassination of an Afghan vice president prompted the United States to begin providing a security detail for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But lawmakers on Wednesday pressed Rumsfeld to go further, and begin supplying U.S. troops to an international security force currently run by Turkey.
"Right now, outside of Kabul we are bordering to some degree on chaos," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "The fact is we need to expand the peacekeeping force. We're the world's superpower. We have to step up."
Rumsfeld all but rejected the notion, saying the United States wants to keep its focus on hunting down remnants of al-Qaida and training the Afghan militia. He said the United States is encouraging other countries to contribute troops to an international security force in Afghanistan, but is finding few takers.
"I don't agree that the situation in Afghanistan outside of Kabul is bordering on chaos," Rumsfeld said. "I think it is reasonably secure. It is an untidy place, but it's a lot tidier than it used to be."
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