By Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen
As a senior member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, I try to visit our troops in Afghanistan as frequently as possible, especially to visit soldiers from our state of New Jersey. In every case, I listen to their views, learn about their missions, inquire about their loved ones back home and consult with their military and civilian leadership in theater.
Over Veterans Day, I had the distinct honor to lead a bipartisan Congressional delegation to Afghanistan. It is important for me, and the six House Democrats and Republicans I led, to make sure that our servicemen and women are as safe as possible in a very dangerous environment; that they have the best protection, communications gear, intelligence, and state-of-the-art medical care if they are wounded. Our soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen and women deserve no less.
They are all volunteers. They leave their families, often for multiple deployments, to ensure that Afghanistan, a nation slightly smaller than Texas, never again becomes a haven for terrorists.
Flying out of Kabul, heading south in an Air Force C-130 cargo plane over the Hindu Kush mountains, I had the chance to travel in the cockpit, seated between the pilot, a 28-year old Captain from Nebraska and her co-pilot, an older Lieutenant. Of the other crew members, one was 21 with 1.5 years of service while another, his crew chief, had chalked up over 17 years! Well trained, motivated, confident, this crew, are typical of men and women in uniform, active military, National Guard or Reserve, who take our soldiers to and from the battle zone each day.
Of course, the cost to America has been high, but the soldiers I met were proud of their roles. Whether that involved building a rural irrigation system, a school, a medical clinic or training Afghans to carry the burden of the fight, clearing mines, or teaming with our Special Forces in routing bomb factories, they had pride in their mission.
It is also important to note that we now have the largest U.S. embassy in the world in Kabul. Every U.S. federal agency seems to be represented. These civilian employees are also all volunteers and deployed for months.
To my mind, this was an opportune time to visit. The "surge" of U.S. forces ordered by President Obama is now coming to an end and current force of roughly 99,000 troops will be reduced to 68,500 next year. The current plan is to have most of our forces out by the end of 2014, but the President appears to be expediting that schedule.
The "surge" has worked, but Afghan governance still very much lags security.
We visited Camp Leatherneck where the vast number of our Marines are based in southern Afghanistan. Largely through the heroic efforts of these Marines, and our British partners, Helmand Province has been reclaimed from the Taliban. The area has been a major battleground and the price has been high. Around both Leatherneck and Kandahar, where the 82nd Airborne is deployed, the population has been better protected, the insurgency neutralized, the Afghan National Army's (ANA) fighting capacity built. This is important because it is said "as goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan.'
Our impressive Ambassador, Ryan Crocker, told our delegation there have been tremendous strides in increasing security, improving agriculture and roads, empowering women, educating young girls, training more female teachers and assuring greater child survival. In short, despite widespread poverty and illiteracy, life is better in those areas where the NATO-ISAF force has been active.
The challenge now is to transfer capability and responsibility for security to the Afghan Army and police.
General John Allen, our U.S. Marine commander of ISAF forces stated bluntly that ours is a "very tough mission against an intelligent, resourceful and resilient enemy with patience and little regard for human life." Atrocities of the worst type - massacre of innocents -- continue. In some ways, while fewer, they are more pronounced and organized by Taliban leaders or the dangerous Haqqani network.
General Allen's campaign plan was reemphasized in briefings at every turn, but its success hinges on the ability of our forces to continue the battle, put Afghans in the lead and convince the Afghan people with little allegiance to the government of President Hamid Karzai that our departure does not spell disaster for them.
Prominent in our discussions was the fact that Pakistan is orchestrating a lot of the violence in Afghanistan.. Internal and external questions have been raised about the relationship of the Pakistan intelligence service, the ISI, to various terrorist groups that are warring on our forces and innocent women and children. Sanctuary in Pakistan allows the Taliban and criminal gangs, such as the Haqqani network, to operate with impunity. Our reported use of drones and the magnification of some related, but not always confirmed, civilian casualties only exacerbate anti-U.S. feelings. Add the killing of Osama bin Laden and the "powder keg" is potentially even more explosive.
Of course, not lost on anyone is Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and historical enmity towards neighbor, India.
An extraordinary effort has been put forward in Afghanistan by U.S. and allied forces. A steep price has been paid by our military and civilian teams on the ground in Afghanistan, and their families back home. While our short visit did not provide us with all that we need to know, the uncensored opinion from New Jersey soldiers is that they see a short window of opportunity to make a lasting contribution to Afghanistan's future and regional stability. They recognize that failure will likely plunge Afghanistan back into the "dark ages" with few schools, medical care, women and girls as property, safe havens for violent extremists and terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons in nearby Pakistan.
The many soldiers I listened to understand that American patience has worn perilously thin. They are ready to turn Afghanistan back to the Afghans.
Moreover, they are counting on all of us to put them to work as they come back home to civilian life or continue military careers that capitalize on their talents, skills and life experience fighting for freedom!