Freshly returned from a tour of war zones and global hotspots, Vice President-elect Joe Biden told President-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday that "things are going to get tougher" in Afghanistan.
GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, Biden's partner in the five-day, bipartisan fact-finding mission to Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, predicted that "casualties are likely to increase" in Afghanistan as the number of U.S. troops there goes up this year.
The U.S. is rushing as many as 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, seeking to the turn the tide in fighting that has seen al-Qaida-linked militants and the Taliban make a comeback after initial defeats in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
"It is a fair criticism to say, Mr. President, that we have taken our eye off the ball in Afghanistan and we need to re-engage," Graham, R-S.C., said. "And that re-engagement is going to come at a heavy price."
Biden and Graham gave Obama an initial report on their trip to the four countries, all central to America's security agenda and the broader war on terror, at Obama's transition headquarters. They will present the president-elect later with a more detailed accounting, including recommendations for action based on what they saw and heard.
Reporters weren't allowed into the meeting where Biden and Graham briefed Obama, but the trio talked to reporters brought in after it was over.
"The truth is that things are going to get tougher in Afghanistan before they're going to get better," Biden said.
Biden said he and Graham went to each country "to listen, not to convey policy." But, he said, they expressed concern to some leaders, when necessary, "about some of their actions — or lack of actions."
For instance, they both emphasized the crucial role Pakistan will play in whether the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan can be successful. Militants cross the porous, dangerous border from the lawless frontier on the Pakistani side into Afghanistan, where they attack U.S. troops.
Biden said they told officials everywhere they went that there is a great need to build "political institutions that are sustainable."
"Focusing on personalities is not the key to success," he said.
Obama said little to reporters, other than thanking the two senators and announcing that he plans to enlist Graham as "one of our counselors" on foreign policy.
"The recommendations that you're going to be delivering to me are going to be of enormous help in making sure that we do what is my No. 1 task as president-elect and as president, and that is to keep the American people safe and to make sure that when we deploy our military, that we do so with a clear sense of mission and with strong support from the American people," Obama said.
Obama pledged during his election campaign to withdraw all American combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office and shift the focus to Afghanistan.
Biden, still chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until his expected resignation from his Senate seat before becoming vice president on Tuesday, took the trip as a member of Congress, not as incoming vice president.
But it was a distinction without a difference.
The administration-in-waiting wanted to show its interest in the crucial region as soon as possible. And an official White House trip would have been much more cumbersome and have taken much longer to organize than what's known in Capitol Hill-speak as a CODEL, or congressional delegation trip. Graham is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.