PORTLAND, Maine — It’s hard to understand the difficulties of living in a country such as Afghanistan or Pakistan, but as U.S. Sen. Angus King has just learned, it’s even harder to understand the triumphs.
King, Maine’s independent U.S. senator, returned from a nine-day trip to South Asia and the Middle East where he learned that despite common perceptions in the U.S., there has been dramatic progress that in some ways mirrors our own history. Unfortunately, he said, there also are emerging threats that could lead to repeats of some of history’s darkest moments, with the difference being that today’s militants have weapons of mass destruction instead of swords or muskets.
King, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, said understanding new threats in the 21st century was the major motivation for his trip.
“My nightmare is a suitcase-sized nuclear weapon on a tramp steamer, headed into the port of Philadelphia,” King said during a telephone interview on Thursday. “It’s beyond the technical capability of these terrorist groups to build one themselves, but they could steal one. My characterization of ISIS is that they have 14th century ethics and 21st century weapons.”
Despite those concerns about the new face of terrorism, King said he came away from some of the countries, particularly Afghanistan and India, buoyed by a new understanding of just how much progress has been made. Afghanistan, for example, has managed more progress in certain areas during the past 12 years than Western countries, such as the U.S., did in hundreds of years.
Since 2002, according to King, Afghanistan’s life expectancy has gone from 43 to 60 years old, the number of women in schools has gone from zero to more than 12 million, and the Taliban has been reduced from a nationwide terrorist network to one that can manage only sporadic and mostly rural attacks.
In India, a coalition government that has existed for 35 years has ceded to one-party rule under a prime minister who wants to improve the role of women and society and at long last make major investments in manufacturing and public infrastructure, such as sewers and drinking water facilities, that will make vast improvements to public health.
And in Pakistan, King found a new commitment among government officials to root out and destroy militant groups who for too long have terrorized the country, as well as budding partnerships between Afghanistan and Pakistan on necessities, such as power generation and sharing.
King said the U.S., which is ramping down its military presence in Afghanistan, has a huge responsibility to do it right.
“How do we structure our withdrawal in a way that doesn’t just leave them high and dry?” King said. “How do we get out while at the same time preserving the progress that’s been made?”
King said his trip to the region was timely because of debate in Congress about what the U.S. should do to combat ISIS and bring stability to countries, such as Syria. At the core of that conversation, he said, should be an attempt to reach consensus on how much power the president should have in making military decisions.
“Historically, if chief executives have the unilateral power to make war, the results aren’t good,” King said. “It’s time to re-establish that. Congress is all too ready to abdicate its responsibility but then sit back and criticize the president. It’s our responsibility to step up and say what the president’s authority should be and say ‘here are the limitations.’”
Despite what looks to many like increasing unrest that has existed for decades and centuries, King said he’s optimistic about the future. After all, many of the problems that exist today in the Middle East and South Asia are essentially the same problems that the United States has in its own history.
“I’m an optimist,” he said. “The long-term arc of history is upward, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be a lot of ups and downs along the way. … The big picture is, it’s going to be a rough go, but they’re headed in the right direction. We just hope it doesn’t take 400 years.”