U.S. Rep. John Spratt (D-SC) returned January 26 from a four-day trip to Afghanistan, with stop-overs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. He led a congressional delegation as chairman of the House Budget Committee. The committee will be considering funds for our mission in Afghanistan this year and next, and the implications for budgets in the future.
Spratt was joined by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Ranking Republican on the Budget Committee; U.S. Reps. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) and Xavier Becerra (D-CA), both members of the committee; and U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS), a senior member along with Spratt on the House Armed Services Committee.
"We came to see for ourselves what we can expect to accomplish this year and next, especially by adding troops, and what the cost is likely to be over the years to come.
"When our troops are deployed to a combat zone, they deserve our full support, and we made it clear to everyone that they have it. We also brought with us another message, especially to the Afghans, that our budget is strained," said Spratt "and that limits our ability to make open-ended commitments for an indefinite time."
In Kabul, Spratt and his colleagues met with General Stanley McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and their country teams. They found support for the Administration's commitment of more troops for 18 months, but they also found consensus that a military solution will take longer, and may not prove lasting. So, our tactics will turn now to "reconciling and re-integrating" at least some of the Taliban forces. McChrystal and Eikenberry both believe that 80% of the Taliban are fighting for practical reasons, such as what they are paid, and these can be won over.
The delegation met next with a conference room full of workers from an assortment of U.S. agencies and departments - from AID to the FBI to the U. S. Departments of Agriculture and Justice. "I could not help but conclude," says Spratt, "that we are into nation-building in a big way." Spratt said the teams they met felt that progress is being made, but there is much to do, and years to go before their projects come to fruition.
The delegation visited a new law enforcement complex in Kabul, where judges, prosecutors, and investigators are being trained, and criminal cases will be tried.
The delegation also visited the Kabul Military Training Center. "The center is 22,000 acres," said Spratt, "and is dedicated to training the Afghan military and police. I have been there before, but I could not help but notice how much larger it's become. Soldiers in training are grouped all over the site - in schools, dorms, garages, and on artillery ranges, and in one large field, there is a huge collection of Soviet equipment, arrayed like a sculpture garden, a reminder of what Afghanis once accomplished.
The delegation flew by C-130 from Kabul to Kandahar the next day, and visited a Forward Operating Base. Over a lunch of tacos and French fries, Spratt got an assessment of the situation from Lt. Ryan Christmas and Sgt. Jacob Caraway, from York and Chester County. He met later with troops from the Fort Mill-based Army National Guard unit, the 1222nd Engineers, called the Sappers. The 1222ns have just arrived and are in training for the missions they will take on as combat engineers.
In flying from Kabul to Kandahar, all one sees is a landscape of craggy mountains covered with grey soil and literally no vegetation. But Kandahar has water, thanks to the TVA and American aid, which built dams and irrigation systems fifty years ago. The result is cultivation over thousands of acres, which we coulf see when we helicoptered over the province.
Kandakar was relatively quiet the day the delegation visited, but the commanders there expect a spring offensive. They also echo what we heard in Kabul: many of the Taliban can be won over, especially here where agriculture can make the economy viable. "Make them a better offer, and we may win them over."
Spratt says, "We all came home feeling that the task is daunting, but doable if we are realistic about objectives. I never go in the field without coming home grateful for the men and women who serve us so well in the military."