Collins: As Afghanistan worsens, Obama remains conflicted about war

Posted Aug. 17, 2010, at 11:28 a.m.

Sen. Collins gave the following address to the Bangor Foreign Policy Forum on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010.

There is a term that comes to us from the field of journalism. It served as a warning for journalists who ignore problems in their own communities, such corruption at City Hall or crime in the streets. Instead, a journalist suffering the symptoms of this particular diagnosis would expound at great length and with great passion on some bad thing happening in some faraway place. The more unsolvable the problem and the more distant the place, the greater the length of the articles and the depth of the passion.

The term is “Afghanistanism.”

Today, Afghanistan is anything but irrelevant to our lives. It is now the place where our nation has sent thousands of troops to war for the past nine years. More than 300 of those currently serving there are from the Maine National Guard, plus many other Mainers are serving in active duty units across our military. It is also where we have spent billions of dollars with seemingly little to show for the investment.

If I were addressing you five years ago about Afghanistan, I would have commented on the remarkable and positive change I had seen in my trips there up until that time. It is a country that several years ago seemed to have turned the corner. With Americans leading the way, NATO forces had dislodged the Taliban from power, and al Qaeda was on the run. People who had known nothing but violence and oppression began enjoying their first taste of human rights, civil liberties, and democracy.

But I am addressing you today, and we are not in the same place as we were.

This war has broken the hearts of families, friends, and entire communities here at home who have lost loved ones. The war has drained our national treasury during a time of economic crisis. Many Americans now are asking: Is it still worth it? Can we succeed? What would success look like? These are the questions at the focus of the debate in Washington today.

In many ways, my four journeys to Afghanistan over the last nine years reflect the course of the war. Each time I have traveled to Afghanistan, I have met with Afghan leaders and civilians, talked with our military commanders and their civilian counterparts, and listened to our troops serving on the front lines.

My first trip to Afghanistan, in 2002, was harrowing. It was so dangerous that our delegation could only visit Bagram Air Base under cover of darkness, and our plane had to make a stomach-turning spiral landing in case there was incoming fire. Hamid Karzai, recently smuggled into the country, met with us in a green Army tent with a space heater in one corner near an aircraft hanger with huge holes in its roof. Schools had not yet opened to girls who were denied an education during the cruel years of Taliban rule. I remember seeking a promise from Karzai to open schools to girls once he became president, a commitment he readily gave and has largely kept.

My next trip was in early 2005, and what a difference three years had made. This time our military aircraft landed at the international airport in Kabul, and it was safe enough to drive into the capital city, albeit in armored SUVs. Along the route, the streets were lined with Afghans going about their daily lives. Fruit stands were everywhere, and merchandise was piled high in front of tiny shops. No longer was it a crime to possess a toothbrush, rather than a wooden implement modeled on what Mohammed used in the 7th Century. The sports stadium was transformed from an arena of public executions to an arena filled with spirited soccer matches.

Perhaps most striking was the change in the status of girls and women. No longer were women beaten if they were not wearing burqas. By 2005, schools were open all over the country, and many girls were getting an education. In Kabul, older girls once prohibited from attending school were going to special classes designed to accelerate their learning. One out of every five university students was a woman. After being barred from working outside of the home under the Taliban, women also had returned to the workforce and government. A woman had been named Governor of Barmiyan Province, and women had been elected to the new Afghan assembly.

The Afghan people were still extremely poor, but their feeling of optimism was apparent. Everywhere we went Afghans expressed their gratitude for America’s sacrifice in liberating their country from the Taliban and al Qaeda. The recent elections had been peaceful and the voter turnout was strong. These signs of progress were even more evident in my visit in my third trip in late 2006.

One year ago this month, I was in Afghanistan on my fourth trip to the country. This time, I found that the situation had worsened significantly. The Taliban were regaining power. The central government was increasingly perceived as weak and inept. Corruption was rampant. Despite several years of opportunity to build up the Afghan security forces, American troops continued carrying the bulk of the military assignments, with far too few Afghan soldiers by their side.

Our congressional delegation met with General Stan McChrystal, who had just taken command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He bluntly warned that the military situation was “serious and deteriorating,” and said that the new strategy of counter-insurgency required more troops.

It was a sobering journey. Earlier that week, a suicide bomber had killed several Afghan civilians and wounded nearly 100 more. After Kabul, we went to Camp Leatherneck in the dangerous Helmand Province, where a young Marine from Maine had died just a few days earlier in combat.

His Marine comrades told me that after they fight to drive the Taliban out of a village, there was not the required follow-up by Afghan military forces and government leaders to secure and stabilize the town. The prevailing strategy of “clear, hold, build, and transition” seemed stuck on “clear.” I returned from that trip a year ago with more questions than answers.

By the end of this month, an additional 30,000 American troops will be in place as a part of the Afghanistan surge announced by President Obama in December 2009. In all, U.S. forces will consist of nearly 100,000 troops – nearly triple the number that was there in January 2009. As with the Iraq surge, I am convinced that it will succeed only if it is accompanied by a vigorous and committed build-up of Afghan security forces, in both numbers and capability.

Consider this fact: As of April of this year, coalition forces could operate only in 48 of the 121 key districts in Afghanistan. This leaves 73 key districts that are unguarded. Ultimately, this gap will need to be filled by the Afghan security forces.

My trip last summer convinced me that if the counter-insurgency strategy is to succeed, Afghanistan needs a civilian surge. As a result of its troubled history, Afghanistan simply does not have enough people with experience in providing basic government services. 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. A counter-insurgency strategy depends on a unity of effort between the military and the civilian personnel, yet the civilian side of our mission has been severely understaffed.

But the question of what strategy should be employed and how it should be resourced does not answer a more fundamental question. Last December, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, I asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates that question: “Why Afghanistan?” The Secretary had just testified that a primary objective of American strategy in Afghanistan is to prevent al Qaeda from regaining sanctuary in Afghanistan. et, as I pointed out to him, al Qaeda has a presence in more than 20 countries. In Yemen, for example, al Qaeda is strong enough to have attacked the USS Cole in 2000 and the U.S. embassy in 2008, and later that very month, to have launched the Christmas Day bomber, Abdulmutallab.

I asked the secretary: How will it make us safer to invest more troops and treasure in Afghanistan as long as al Qaeda still has the ability to establish safe havens in other countries? What is it about Afghanistan that makes it critical that we invest more troops and more civilian personnel, that we put more Americans at risk in that country?

Secretary Gates began his answer by reminding the Committee that it was from Afghanistan that the attack against us was launched in 2001. But it was what he said next that resonated most with me. Calling Afghanistan “the epicenter of the global extremist jihad,” he said that the al Qaeda presence and its leadership in the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan are still the wellspring of inspiration for Islamist terrorists everywhere.

The inspiration and often times the guidance and strategic leadership come from the al Qaeda leadership in that border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Secretary went on to explain that what we have seen is an unholy alliance of al Qaeda, the Taliban in Pakistan, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. And these people work off each other’s mythology, off each other’s narrative, where the success of one contributes to the success of the other.

Afghanistan is where these extremists consider that they defeated the Soviet Union and give themselves credit for the Soviet Union’s ultimate collapse. If they are successful in driving the United States and other NATO forces out of Afghanistan prior to the Afghan security forces being able to provide a measure of peace and security, the extremists will claim defeat of a second global power, and Islamist terrorists around the world will be emboldened. If we walk away now, the Karzai government would almost certainly collapse, and the Taliban would take over much of the country. As one expert said, “Afghanistan would become another Lebanon where the civil war blends into a regional war involving multiple neighboring states.”

Uneasy though I am with President Obama’s escalation of the war and my continuing feeling that he is not fully committed to the policy he is pursuing, I found the reasons outlined by Secretary Gate to be the best answer for our continued presence. I remain troubled that the president has neither embraced nor abandoned the war in Afghanistan but remains conflicted about our policy.

While America’s strategic interests must determine our involvement, the cover of the August 9 issue of Time magazine also reminds us of what is at stake for the Afghans themselves.

It is a photograph of a beautiful 18-year-old Afghan woman named Aisha. She is beautiful despite the fact that the Taliban cut her nose off. If her hair were pulled back, you would see that her ears had been cut off as well. Her crime? Trying to flee from her abusive in-laws.

During meetings with Afghan leaders last summer, I took the opportunity to express my dismay that President Karzai’s early commitment to justice for women was betrayed by his decision last year to sign a law that was a giant step backwards in the rights of women, including the legalization of marital rape. The Judicial Minister told me that the law had been repealed and had been a “huge mistake.” But the fact that President Karzai initially supported the bill is deeply troubling.

Aisha’s beauty lies in her extraordinary courage. She stepped forward, at great personal risk, to remind the world what a resurgent Taliban would mean for Afghanistan. Imagine what such barbarism would be capable of if in possession of nuclear weapons from a failed Pakistan.

But even if there are good reasons to remain in Afghanistan, even if we can define a more humble definition of success, even if we have the best troops and the most brilliant commanders, can we succeed?

In fact, how should we define success? Senator Richard Lugar raised this important question at a recent Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Lacking a clear definition, he said, we are in danger of being seen as trying to remake Afghan culture to conform to ours. That is beyond our resources and powers, and it arouses the ancient Afghan hatred of foreign domination. From the century-long Great Game between Russia and Great Britain for control of Central Asia during the 1800s to the Soviet Union’s ill-fated invasion in 1979, Afghanistan has been subject to such conquests. Even today, Afghanistan’s powerful neighbors – Iran, Pakistan, and China – see it only though the lens of their own self-interest and strive to manipulate it to serve their own ends. As many experts on Afghanistan have observed, the only thing that seems to unite Afghans is fighting outsiders.

We are not in Afghanistan to control trade routes, or to seize territory and resources. We are not there to cause geo-political mischief or to spread our own ideology. Instead, Senator Lugar believes, as I do, that we must narrow our definition of our purpose there. First and foremost, we must prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists. 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.

Achieving these limited goals raises the difficult issue of Taliban influence and of reconciliation, an issue I have raised on several occasions with our military and diplomatic leaders. Their view is that we essentially are dealing with two Talibans. The “Big T” Taliban are those die-hard barbarians who will stop at nothing – from mass murder to mutilation – in order to impose their hateful ideology. For them, there can be no reconciliation.

Then there are the “Little T” Taliban. Far greater in number, these are the chronically poor and powerless. They take up arms with the Taliban out of dire need for the meager wages and out of fear. They can and should be reintegrated into society.

President Karzai’s draft reconciliation program needs a lot of work and has justifiably drawn much criticism from NATO leaders, who question whether or not it guarantees that Taliban leaders who are allowed to participate in the government have truly broken their ties with al Qaeda. Nevertheless, the fact that President Karzai’s tribal conferences – the jirgas – held to discuss reconciliation are routinely attacked by Taliban rockets and snipers is a strong sign that Big T Taliban recognize the threat reconciliation poses to their power.

What about President Karzai himself? A fundamental tenet of our counter-insurgency strategy is that it requires a dependable partner. When I first met Hamid Karzai in that Army tent back in 2002, the one word that stuck in my mind was “charismatic.” Charisma is a style, not necessarily a virtue. His courage in standing against the Taliban is undeniable, however, and some of the progress I saw in 2005 and 2006 is the fruit of his leadership. On the other hand, the rampant corruption in his government, including by members of his own family, is intolerable. It is especially troubling that, rather than improving, the Karzai government appears to be increasingly corrupt, inept, and erratic.

Afghanistan history is relevant because understanding its past helps us understand the challenges we face today. In his speech here last month, Ken Hillas, one of our most experienced Foreign Service officers, described the longstanding tribal conflicts that define the country. People consider themselves Pashtun, Turkmen, Uzbek, or Tajik, rather than Afghans. Centuries of rule by greedy and brutal warlords have made corruption by government officials expected, a right and privilege of power. This corruption is a major obstacle to the success of the counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

The recent change in command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan could help strengthen the effort to crack down on corruption and to build up the Afghan security forces. I greatly admire and respect General McChrystal’s service. We are fortunate that his position was filled by General David Petraeus, another proven and brilliant commander who successfully devised and implemented the counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq that has allowed us to draw down our troops and transfer responsibility to the Iraqis.

I have met with General Petraeus many times, both in Washington and in the field in Iraq. The General has correctly identified corruption as an enemy that is just as real as the Taliban. He is sharpening the focus on keeping villages secure after they have been cleared of Taliban, and just as he did in Iraq, he is accelerating efforts to train and deploy Afghan forces. And he is striving to replicate the strong and highly effective military-diplomatic team he had in Iraq.

A key to success in Iraq was the outstanding diplomatic partner General Petraeus had there, Ambassador Ryan Crocker. By contrast, General McChrystal did not enjoy a similar united front with our chief diplomat in Afghanistan, former General Karl Eikenberry. The partnership between Petraeus and Eikenberry appears to be more harmonious, but if it does not succeed, the President needs to appoint a new ambassador. Otherwise, the cohesion between the civilian and military teams will not be effective.

The re-evaluation of the situation in Afghanistan that President Obama has ordered for December 2010 and July of 2011 will be a report card on the effectiveness of his strategy, as well as that of the Afghans. At an Appropriations Committee hearing this March, Secretary of State Clinton described significant steps that have been taken to mount a much-needed civilian surge. Our civilian personnel on the ground have tripled in number, helping to move Afghanistan forward in everything from building schools to establishing a prosecutor’s office to rein in corruption. A massive assistance program for Afghan farmers is underway. 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.

Secretary Clinton also described a renewed effort to strengthen our ties with the people of Pakistan and to bolster that country’s ability to counter extremism. As the original home of the Taliban movement, a stable Pakistan is essential to the future of Afghanistan and to American security.

Finally, let me return to my speech here two years ago, when I discussed an issue that is as important today as it was then – the need for bipartisanship here at home.

Foreign policy must always be subject to vigorous and open debate, but, as Senator Arthur Vandenberg stated more than 60 years ago, “Politics must end at the water’s edge.” His call, at the beginning of the Cold War, for America to speak to the world with a unified voice must be heeded today against another enemy that seeks to divide us. Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders have said repeatedly that, just as they did to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, they will defeat America simply by wearing down our resolve.

The struggle in Afghanistan has been long and it has been difficult. There are no guarantees. But surely, the debate on our strategy and purpose, vigorous and at times contentious though it may be, should not be a source of hope to terrorists. They should not mistake the spirited debate of a democracy for a lessening of our commitment to defeat the Islamist terrorism that seeks to crush our democracy and our American way of life.

Susan Collins is ranking member and former chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. She also serves on the Appropriations and Armed Services Committees.

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