Sen. Josh Hawley

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley questions witnesses about Afghanistan strategy during a Capitol Hill hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.

Sen. Josh Hawley studied as an undergraduate at Stanford University when American airstrikes began in Afghanistan in October 2001.

Now as a U.S. senator with a seat on the Armed Services Committee, the Missouri Republican questions why the unfinished war in Afghanistan has no clear goals and no real direction.

“I, for one, still can’t figure out what in the world our strategy is there,” he told witnesses at a committee hearing on the topic. “I don’t think we have a coherent strategy there.”

The hearing last week included retired military officers and a defense expert with views on the purposes on U.S. military presence in that nation.

Hawley believes Congress owes the American people answers on the status of Afghanistan operations, which he said have cost numerous U.S. military lives and roughly $1 trillion.

By not finding a coherent strategy that adheres to American interests, and not making optimal use of resources in Afghanistan, he said, our nation risks falling further behind in addressing needs in the Indo-Pacific region, where China poses a greater security threat.

“My fear is we’re not yet focused enough on what our interests actually are,” Hawley said at the hearing.

In an interview last week with the News-Press NOW, the senator said he asked the inspector general for Afghanistan about how the U.S. military measures success in the war effort.

“His answer is, ‘We’re not,’” Hawley said. “The Pentagon doesn’t have any clear measurement about whether we’re succeeding or not.”

Every veteran and every American taxpayer, the Missourian said, “deserves to know what is going on and what is our strategy there. And I’m afraid to say, I just don’t think we have one.”

Retired Brig. Gen. Kimberly Field, a professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service in College Station, Texas, replied when Hawley asked about the American ability to fight al-Qaida and ISIS if troop strengths dropped below 8,600 in Afghanistan.

“Once we start this thing, it might snowball. All of sudden we’re somewhere we didn’t necessary want to be,” she said, adding counter-terrorism operations could take place without larger numbers. “As far as military capabilities, we could come way down. It’s just a little trickier than that.”

Dr. Colin F. Jackson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and former Pentagon official, compared the American presence in Afghanistan to an insurance policy.

“The least bad option might be for the U.S. to continue to (pay) the insurance premium in Afghanistan to the practical minimum and prepare to wage this increasingly small and efficient counter-terrorism campaign until something breaks our way,” the witness said in prepared testimony.

A Defense Department casualty status report this week showed 2,352 U.S. military deaths in Operation Enduring Freedom, the Afghanistan war. It also indicated 20,147 Americans wounded in action.

Hawley said he wants to see the priorities in Afghanistan brought back into balance.

“Our primary mission in Afghanistan and that whole region is counter-terrorism,” he told the News-Press NOW. “We went there in the first place to prevent terrorist groups from striking the American homeland. That needs to be our No. 1 priority.”

Ken Newton can be reached at ken.newton@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.