MY TIME ON THE GROUND: AMERICAN TROOPS, DIPLOMATS SEE POSITIVE FUTURE
In the coming weeks and months you'll hear more debates on the War in Iraq taking place on Capitol Hill. You'll hear discussion about funding, about timelines, and about the United States' future role in the country. The debate will be passionate and may get heated, and I wanted you to hear directly from me, about my thoughts on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the larger War on Terrorism.
Last week, I returned to the United States after an opportunity I had to join six colleagues to see for ourselves what the situation on the ground was like in three countries that are critical in the War on Terror. During our seven day trip we were on-the-go the entire time receiving briefings from commanders, diplomats, and intelligence officers. We also met with troops on the ground and with local leaders as we traveled through Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
In Iraq, our first stop was Camp Victory, the main base for the command of U.S. and multi-national forces, where we received an update from Commanding General Ray Odierno and his officers about the current situation in Iraq. We then traveled - in flak jackets and helmets - to the International Zone to meet with members of the diplomatic corps and Deputy Commander of Multinational Forces General W.R. Rollo from the United Kingdom to further discuss the current political and military environment. We spent the night at the embassy compound in the Green Zone where I could hear mortar fire in the background as I fell asleep.
We wanted to make sure we traveled to areas outside Baghdad, where we could get a real feel for the situation our troops face every day. So the next day we visited three different cities outside Baghdad; Salam Pak, Kalsu, and Balad. In Salam Pak, our up-armored HUMVEES passed a giant crater along the road where our escorts explained an improvised explosive device had exploded the day before. The neighborhoods we visited were not the "best-case-scenario" nor were they entirely safe. I knew I was in a war zone. But, while there we met with our military men and women and also had the opportunity to speak with Iraqi officials including a general and a police chief. In Balad, we received an intelligence briefing before leaving Iraq to spend the night in Kuwait where we met with American diplomats.
The next morning we left for Pakistan where we met with diplomats including the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, and received updates about the political, economic, and intelligence situation all afternoon. The next morning we met with Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf and discussed his country's efforts to fight the terrorists.
After the meeting we flew from Islamabad over the rugged, treacherous mountains that stretch along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan - they seemed to go on forever, I've never seen anything like it. We visited a Forward Operating Base along the Afghani-Pakistani boarder called Camp Salerno. Special operations forces and a commanding general outlined the security situation in Afghanistan and our intelligence and military efforts. We spent the night at the embassy in Kabul where just a few weeks ago the U.S. Ambassador's car was bombed while leaving the compound. They now have it parked inside the compound as a reminder of the situation beyond the walls.
Over the course of the trip, all the briefings my colleagues and I received were from career military or civilians who have dedicated their lives to serving our country - whether in the military, foreign service, intelligence community, or humanitarian aid. My colleagues and I were the only people involved in politics on the trip. However, many service members did make a point of expressing their outrage with Moveon.org's attack on General Petraeus in the New York Times advertisement. These patriotic men and women aren't appointed by the president, and they serve regardless of who is president. They are true professionals.
What was clear in every single briefing I received was while the situation is complex, they believe progress is being made and each one believed a precipitous withdraw would be devastating to not only Iraq, but to security in the United States. We are fighting multiple factions in Iraq. First, we're fighting plain old street thugs. As you may recall, just before the liberation of Iraq, Saddam Hussein freed 50,000 Iraqi prisoners in an attempt to destabilize the escalating situation. Now those criminals, who were put away for things like assault, murder, rape, and theft, are back on the streets forming gangs and inciting indiscriminate violence. We've made good progress rounding them up, but it's taking time. We're fighting former members of the Baath party who lost the political power they had under Saddam. Their attacks are an effort to undermine the government in hopes of regaining political power. Third, we're fighting Iranian-backed fundamentalists. They are also trying to use the fragile situation in Iraq for their own political gain. Finally, and most importantly for the United States, we're fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq. These people are terrorists and they're targeting Americans. They want us to leave. They want Iraq to remain weak and for the American presence to disappear, so they can use the country to plan and launch terror attacks against the West. The Iraqis, American diplomats, and military members all agreed that Iraq was not in a civil war, even though we hear that repeatedly in the United States. They all said that overstates and oversimplifies the complex nature of the issue.
A poll that was released in the United States when I left for Iraq, said that 70 percent of Iraqis wanted Americans to leave. I asked the Iraqis I met if they thought that was accurate. One Police Chief's response summed up most. He laughed and told me through an interpreter that Iraqis wanted Americans to leave eventually. Not now. They know it's too early, they know they still need help before we leave.
Of course Iraqis want to govern their own country. Of course they want to provide their own security, and that will happen. While their political success nationally is unacceptable, there are political successes in cities, towns, and provinces that will eventually carry over to the national arena. Americans can not will Iraqis to have a politically successful national government, the Iraqis must do that.
Even as there are discussions in the halls of Congress and debates on the House Floor, the U.S. military presence in Iraq is changing, as it has been over the last few months. No matter what Congress decides to do, the American military footprint in Iraq will continue to change.
General Petraeus has said he believes there will be a drawdown of our forces in Iraq in the coming months. After discussions with military leaders, if our success against Al-Qaeda in Iraq continues, I believe our presence in Iraq will evolve to look similar to our presence in Afghanistan. Our forces will focus on training, gathering intelligence, and executing special operations, as well as, working with other nations to help Iraqis strengthen their government.
In Afghanistan our mission has gone well. Americans along with our Coalition partners and our skilled intelligence community are fighting the Taliban with the Afghan Army in remote regions of Afghanistan. We're seeing real results in rooting them out of their hiding places in the rugged mountainous region and implement rule of law in that area what has been without a government for thousands of years. The Taliban's will has not been broken and their hate for the West has not been diminished. But the determination of Coalition forces and the Afghan army is resulting in measurable progress. While Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, the real progress I saw was in Afghani's hope for a brighter tomorrow. When we liberated Afghanistan from Taliban rule, only about a million children were enrolled in school. No girls were permitted to attend. Now more than six million students flock to schools in the morning, including for the first time - women. While progress is being made, much more needs to be done.
That mountainous border region is causing problems for President Musharaf, as well. He's facing growing extremism in his country, and like in Afghanistan, fundamentalists can hide in the vast mountain region. People who have allegiances to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have called that region home since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan decades ago. Traditionally, tribal leaders control those mountains, but since September 11th, and President Musharaf's pledge to help the United States battle terrorists, Pakistan has made great progress in rooting out terrorists. There is a growing problem there. As rebels have been leaving the mountains and detonating suicide bombs in Pakistan. President Musharaf is concerned about this and he believes once Pakistan holds their national election, he will better be able to assert military efforts to fight those terrorists.
I can not stress enough how proud I was to meet and speak with so many young men and women in uniform, and those American civilians who have dedicated themselves to helping Iraq. There aren't words to express the tremendous job they are doing, they have performed every task asked of them, they are succeeding in their mission. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is weaker than they were a year ago, our military has them on the ropes. I am convinced our brave men and women in uniform will defeat them and it will be a great victory for not only the United States, but for Iraq.
After spending even a short amount of time in these three countries, I do understand what we see on the evening news or read in the morning paper is only just a sliver of a large complicated puzzle of what is happening in the region. All three nations are far from the United States. All three are stricken with a history of poverty and violence. All three are dominated by a religion that is foreign to most Americans. All three have an Al-Qaeda presence that has attacked the U.S. and the West over the last 16 years.
Al-Qaeda's mission is unyielding. It is deadly. They want to inflict harm on us. What became clearer to me over the course of the trip is we can not disengage against Al-Qaeda. Whatever we do, this terrorist network will fill a vacuum and that vacuum will allow them to plot new ways to threaten us and inflict fear. If Al-Qaeda wins, their next attack might not be sending a suicide bomber into a crowded market in a foreign country, it may be much closer to home.
The young men and women I met are just a fraction of the military members and civil servants, who serve in dangerous places because they believe so strongly in defeating Al-Qaeda, helping people who want to live without tyranny and violence, and strengthening America's future. They said over and over that there is progress being made and that precipitously withdrawing will have devastating effects. I believe we owe it to them to take their expert advice about what the United States footprint should be. If we do this the right way, not the political way, we'll see success in Afghanistan. We'll see success in Iraq. We'll see a safer world and a more secure future.