WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Taliban is stronger now than before President Barack Obama ordered a surge of troops to Afghanistan, two senior U.S. lawmakers said on Sunday, contradicting the administration's assessment of the insurgency.
"I think we both say that what we found is the Taliban is stronger," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein told "Fox News Sunday" in an interview that included House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, who agreed with her statement. The two lawmakers returned last week from a trip to Afghanistan.
The Defense Department said last week in a report to Congress that its surge of 33,000 extra troops in Afghanistan ordered in late 2009 had weakened the Taliban but that the insurgency remained resilient.
The report said overall insurgent attacks declined in 2011 for the first time in five years, even though violence increased in areas surrounding the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar, a region where U.S. efforts have been focused since 2009.
Feinstein, a Democrat, said radical Islamist religious schools in Pakistan were providing new recruits to the Afghan insurgency.
"So an insurgency which one can expect will burn itself out after a period of time will not necessarily burn out," she said.
Obama traveled to Kabul last week to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The deal sets out a long-term U.S. role in Afghanistan, including aid and advisers, after most American and NATO combat soldiers withdraw by the end of 2014.
Rogers said there was a danger that Obama's announcement of a date of withdrawal of U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan and Washington's decision to hold talks with the Taliban could undermine the U.S. objective of denying a safe haven to terrorists.
"The first priority is to deny safe haven and that means a strategic defeat of the Taliban and we have to also defeat the safe havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan," said Rogers, a Republican.
The Obama administration is due to pull the last of its 33,000 surge troops from Afghanistan by this fall, leaving around 68,000 U.S. soldiers there.
Rogers and Feinstein both said the United States should designate the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent group believed to be based in Pakistan, as a terrorist organization.
"They've killed nearly 500 U.S. troops. They are based in Miram Shah (in Pakistan) ... This is something we have to be very aggressive to put an end to," Rogers said.
The United States has repeatedly urged Pakistan's military to launch a major offensive in North Waziristan to go after the Haqqanis, which have links to al Qaeda. Pakistan says it is already stretched fighting homegrown Taliban militants elsewhere near the Afghan border.
(Reporting By Eric Beech)