I recently returned from a congressional delegation trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where I was given a firsthand look at our military's ongoing effort to rid the country from the Taliban and al-Qaeda extremists. The trip, which came less than two months after President Obama announced a surge of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, gave my colleagues and me the chance to meet with political and security leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as top U.S. and coalition military commanders.
I returned home confident our men and women in uniform are capable of successfully completing this critical mission. And while there are great challenges that remain and problems that need to be addressed, it is evident that the efforts and sacrifices of our service members are creating positive results.
SIGNS OF PROGRESS
The early phases of the counterinsurgency plan -- headed by Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus -- have resulted in important local security gains. These successes are crucial to creating trust with the locals and ultimately establishing a country that can keep the Taliban from again providing a safe haven to al-Qaeda. This is the same type of "clear, hold, and build" strategy that was successful in turning around our effort in Iraq.
While our military is leading this effort, USAID, the agency in charge of U.S. economic and humanitarian assistance abroad, is also playing a big role. After our forces clear an area of the Taliban and secure it, USAID is beginning the building phase. This is a key component of proving to the Afghan people that we will not abandon them and that we want a long-term, strategic partnership.
In order for this new strategy to succeed, we also need an equal partner in the Afghan government. My colleagues and I had a productive meeting with Afghan President Karzai, where we stressed the U.S. commitment must be met by the determination of their government.
A leading component of this partnership is the continued development of Afghan security forces. In a hopeful sign, the Afghan Defense Minister reported to us that December was a record month for recruitment of army and police forces. Ultimately, Afghan forces, not U.S. troops, must take responsibility for defending their country from extremists.
ARTIFICIAL DEADLINE HURTS EFFORTS
In addition to progress made, there are a number of problems that must be addressed. It became clear during our trip that the July 2011 withdrawal date announced by President Obama is a major impediment to progress. Unfortunately, the Taliban is using the president's artificial deadline as a propaganda tool. They are spreading the message that the U.S. cannot be depended upon in the long-term, which increases the anxiety many Afghan citizens have about turning against the Taliban.
This artificial deadline has also created a deficit of trust amongst the military and political leaders in Pakistan, whose support is critical to our success. In the last year, Pakistan has undertaken two significant military campaigns against Taliban members residing in their country. In order for this to continue, the U.S. must convince Pakistan that we are in the region to stay. The artificial deadline undermines these efforts.
Another problem is the confusion over how enemy combatants are to be handled. We found a troubling amount of uncertainty concerning current policies for handling insurgents and terrorists. This is not the fault of our service members. Rather, it stems from what I believe is a preoccupation the Obama administration has with prisoners' rights.
This preoccupation is evident in the administration's decision to close the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as their recent decision to try a number of terrorists in federal criminal court, as opposed to congressionally authorized military tribunals. By viewing terrorists -- such as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks and the would-be Christmas Day airplane bomber -- as a law enforcement issue and not as enemy combatants, the administration is interfering with our ability to win this war.
Despite these challenges, I witnessed a feeling among our troops -- both at the top level and the enlisted men and women -- that we are in a strong position to turn things around in Afghanistan this year.
If we succeed in Afghanistan, we will have helped transform it into a more stable country that can defend itself from the Taliban and al-Qaeda and become an important ally in fighting the war on terror. There is difficult and dangerous work to be done, and many obstacles remain, but I believe we are implementing a strategy that can lead us to achieving our objective.