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Toomey: U.S. must continue the battle for Afghanistan

Despite record budget deficits, a skeptical public and corruption within Afghanistan's government, the United States can't afford to shortchange the war effort, Sen. Pat Toomey said yesterday from Kabul.

That likely means troops will remain there when Toomey's term ends in six years, though in numbers "dramatically reduced" from the 90,000 there today, he said. President Obama has said he plans to begin withdrawing troops in July, and slowly shift security responsibilities to Afghan forces by 2014.

"I do think we can achieve success in Afghanistan, but we'll have some presence on the ground here for quite some time," said Toomey, R-Lehigh County, who left for Afghanistan on Thursday.

His trip with six Republican senators included a stop in Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday. Taliban and al-Qaida forces have hidden in Pakistan's tribal areas, and U.S. drone strikes inside Afghanistan's nuclear-armed neighbor increased dramatically in the last year.

The group met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and received a briefing from Gen. David Petraeus, commander of international and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

"The main point that I wanted to stress with (Karzai) was that his government needed to do more to root out the corruption that has really been very pervasive. I was perhaps a little more subtle about it than that, but that was really my essential point," Toomey said.

U.S. strategy, which focuses on counterinsurgency, relies on the government's ability to provide security and services so Afghans don't seek help from the Taliban.

Karzai's response to Toomey was "a little bit defensive," and he listed a series of anti-corruption initiatives.

"They have a point, but the fact is there's still very significant corruption throughout the country," Toomey said.

Public support for the 9-year-old war dipped last year as violence worsened. A November Gallup poll found 54 percent of people thought the war was going badly. As budget pressures tighten and lawmakers look for ways to deal with the country's $14 trillion debt, calls for defense cuts are getting louder.

Toomey, a budget hawk, said the U.S. should not waver in its commitment to Afghanistan.

"This is the country from which al-Qaida launched the most devastating attack on America since World War II. The Taliban wants to take control again. Al-Qaida wants to have a safe haven. And that's what would happen, I'm afraid, if we had a precipitous withdrawal," Toomey said.

It is Toomey's second trip to the country. He went there as a U.S. House member early in the war, when "Kabul lay in ruins." Now, he said, "Kabul looks remarkably normal."

In Islamabad, Toomey met with Pakistani military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.

"We wanted to learn as much as we can and make it clear to leaders in both Islamabad and Kabul that we're committed to success here," Toomey said.

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