BANGOR, Maine — Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine argued Tuesday that the United States must continue its military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan despite the numerous difficulties involved in doing so, but she said “we must narrow [the] definition of our purpose” for being there.
“First and foremost, we must prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists,” Collins told members of the Bangor Foreign Policy Forum in a speech at Bangor Public Library. “A second goal is to make sure that Afghanistan does not destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country now suffering a horrendous natural disaster. And third, we must help Afghans craft a just and humane society that they will defend, but we cannot do it for them.”
During her address, Collins — the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — sought to provide answers to three crucial questions about the war effort:
• Are the proposed goals worth the cost of the fighting?
• Can the U.S. military prevail in its efforts?
• What should actually be considered a successful conclusion to nine years of continual combat?
Collins said a key to success lies in the “unity of effort between the military and civilian personnel,” an avenue she argued has been severely neglected.
“We do not have enough civilians from America and other countries helping the Afghans learn how to build communities that work and a society free from repression and fear that they will fight to defend,” she said in her prepared remarks.
To better explain how stronger social programs ultimately would weaken the Taliban, Collins separated the group into two camps: the die-hard “Big T” fighters who cannot be deterred from their goals, and the “Little T” combatants who take up arms only to provide for their families. She argued that efforts to build the infra-structure necessary for an independent society ultimately will lead the Little T fighters away from the Taliban leadership, leaving only a handful of committed Big T militants that the U.S. military could then eradicate.
Already, a push for more civilian services is under way. Collins cited a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in March at which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described U.S. efforts to improve Afghanistan’s social infrastructure, including a tripling of civilian personnel who are assisting in projects ranging from the construction of schools to an assistance program for Afghan farmers.
“By helping families support themselves, this could reduce the reliance on opium production, which supports terrorism, and it could diminish the appeal of the low wages the Taliban offers to ‘Little T’ fighters,” Collins said.
Aside from civilian support, Collins called upon the military to narrow its definition of success in Afghanistan to tangible goals, one of which should be the support of Pakistan. Armed with nuclear weapons and now struggling with the effects of massive flooding, Pakistan is a country of serious concern to Collins, especially considering the number of Taliban and al-Qaida leaders residing along its border with Afghanistan.
“As the original home of the Taliban movement, a stable Pakistan is essential to the future of Afghanistan and to American security,” Collins said.
When it comes to whether the war effort is worth the cost, Collins was adamant about the need for a U.S. victory over Taliban forces — both for the sake of the fight against terrorism and for the future of the Afghan people.
Militarily, Collins envisions a total regional collapse if Taliban forces were to defeat the United States. Quoting Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Collins compared Afghanistan to Lebanon, where a civil war has developed into a regionwide conflict involving multiple states.
“If we walk away now, the Karzai government would almost certainly collapse, and the Taliban would take over much of the country,” Collins said.
Another, less immediate consequence Collins sees in a U.S. loss would be the psychological boost to terrorist forces. Collins said that “Islamic terrorists around the world will be emboldened” if U.S. military efforts fail before the establishment of adequate Afghan security forces.
Aside from the military fallout, Collins said a U.S. defeat would have terrible consequences for the citizens of Afghanistan, casting the country into a dark age of social repression and abuse.
In her remarks, Collins detailed the story of an 18-year-old Afghan woman named Aisha who appeared recently on the cover of Time magazine. As punishment for Aisha’s failed attempt to flee from her abusive in-laws, a Taliban commander ordered the removal of her nose and ears, a reminder of the conditions women still face in Afghanistan despite dramatic social changes.
Aisha’s tragic story is a reminder of the dangers posed if Afghanistan ever returned to its pre-invasion condition, Collins said. In her eyes, Aisha is a representation of the evils that could be unleashed by a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan on the Middle East and the world at large.
“Imagine what such barbarism would be capable of if in possession of nuclear weapons from a failed Pakistan,” Collins said.