On March 25th, I returned with three other members of Congress from a six-day trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. The purpose of our trip was to meet with American and allied troops, as well as civilian personnel, and to learn more about the situation on the ground. I came away, as all do, tremendously impressed by the commitment of American soldiers and civilians to executing their mission.
We were in the two countries at a time when each faces a watershed moment. In Iraq, it is the imminent departure of all American military troops, the planning and execution of which is already well underway. In Afghanistan, it is the arrival of the "spring offensive" by the Taliban, which will test whether gains made by American troops over the winter can be sustained.
I have long believed that it was a mistake for the United States to invade and occupy Iraq. After all of the sacrifice that has marked that misadventure, it is a credit to the American military and the Iraqi people that the country is now readying itself to enter a new phase. The last American troops are scheduled to leave on December 31st and the question is whether Iraq will be able to assume full responsibility for its own affairs.
On the plus side of the ledger, Iraq has many of the structural features of a modern, functioning society - an educated populace, an economic middle class and bureaucratic institutions that, while lumbering and more corrupt than would be conscionable by our standards, still manage to deliver services to the public. While it took much too long to seat Iraq's new parliament, it is a remarkable achievement that last year's election is still viewed as a fair representation of the peoples' will. In addition, most of the various factions in Iraq share a basic Iraqi nationalism that is an important source of political cohesion.
The future of Iraq's oil economy is still unsettled, but the fact that it is operational today - the infrastructure exists to extract oil and bring it to market (as our trip to Basra province in southern Iraq highlighted) - means there is a legitimate way to fund the country's basic needs. The Iraqi Army and the Iraqi federal police force still lack some key capacities, but are viewed by American military and civilian officials as providing an adequate security apparatus in many parts of the country. The Maliki government is planning to host the Arab League Summit in May, a major undertaking whose success would offer hope for a new chapter in Iraq.
On the other hand, there is good reason to be anxious about Iraq's future. Deep religious, sectarian and ethnic fault lines persist. After many months of delay, the Iraqi parliament only recently convened and has yet to demonstrate any real legislative capability. One of its first major tests will be passing a hydrocarbon law that can provide for a fair distribution of the country's oil proceeds. Terrorist attacks continue, including from al-Qa'ida elements, and whether the government's persistent detractors, such as Muqtada al Sadr, will embrace political reform over violence is still unclear.
The scheduled December 31st departure of the remaining 50,000 American troops is a double hand-off that presents tremendous challenges. First, the American military's support functions - to advise, train and assist Iraqi security forces as they strive to establish credibility and authority - will now be transitioned to the State Department and a cadre of private security contractors. The degree and kind of responsibility being handed to civilian personnel - some 17,000 in number - is virtually unprecedented and comes on top of the State Department's existing heavy load of development and infrastructure work.
At the same time, the removal of American military support also means that Iraqi security forces must step up and take full responsibility for a security operation that was previously shared. Yet, for months, Prime Minister Maliki has neglected to fill the key positions of Minister of Defense and Minister of Interior, which means that the two agencies charged with primary responsibility for the security operation are leaderless. The American officials we spoke with expressed confidence that a stable Iraq is within reach, but were clearly worried that the scheduled departure time for American troops may be premature and could jeopardize that opportunity. We can expect to see a vigorous debate over this question in the coming weeks. In any event, the decision to maintain an American troop presence of any size beyond December 31st is not one the United States can make unilaterally. The Maliki government must request such an extension and to do so would present the government with its own set of risks.
In Afghanistan, the United States faces a monumental challenge. Consider these sobering statistics: Afghanistan is the poorest nation in the world outside of Africa, is the second most corrupt nation after Somalia (according to Transparency International), has an 80 percent illiteracy rate and is home to 90 percent of the world's opium production. While the country has valuable mineral ore and natural gas deposits, there is no infrastructure to tap these resources and therefore no legitimate source of income to fund Afghanistan's vast needs. At times on our trip, it felt as though American troops and civilian personnel were starting from scratch in an effort to establish the rudiments of a secure, modern society. And this after nearly ten years of fighting the war.
Today, nearly 100,000 American troops are carrying out their mission with an inspiring level of dedication. We visited a busy military base in Paktika province in southern Afghanistan, close to the eastern border with Pakistan. From there, American soldiers are carrying out dangerous raids on Taliban insurgent strongholds and weapons caches, with mixed success. While the generals we met characterized progress as two steps forward, one step back, enlisted soldiers closer to the ground seemed less sure about the gains.
The stated mission of the United States is to build up the infrastructure and security apparatus of the Afghan government sufficiently that it can contain the Taliban and keep Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. At President Obama's direction, a major new emphasis of our efforts is on training the Afghan army to assume responsibility for the country's security. We visited a sprawling 22,000 acre training base in East Kabul, where thousands of new Afghan recruits begin their military instruction with classes in basic literacy and numeracy (some cannot even count the number of rounds of ammunition being issued to them). Since President Obama's speech one year ago at West Point announcing a surge of American troops, the number of volunteer recruits has climbed and thousands of trained Afghan soldiers are being added to the army every day. However, the strength of the force is sapped by a persistently high attrition rate. The question is how quickly and at what level of sustainability can the Afghan forces be trained and deployed to provide security and stability for their own country?
And what of President Hamid Karzai? The most generous description of him we heard is that he is an enigmatic Afghan nationalist who is balancing a myriad of competing interests and constituencies. This was from American officials who appear resigned to the notion that Karzai - the beneficiary of a tainted election - is the only viable option when it comes to holding together a national government. However, the level of corruption under Karzai makes our partnership with him a questionable investment.
We had the opportunity to meet with four new members of parliament who were quite candid in their criticism of the Karzai government, which they viewed as far removed from the concerns of the people. To the credit of the new Afghan constitution which requires that 28 percent of the members of the legislature be women, two of our counterparts were female parliamentarians. They expressed grave concerns over repeated threats by President Karzai's cabinet to bar non-governmental organizations from running private safe houses and bring fourteen women's shelters under the control of the Ministry of Women's Affairs.
Of all the inconvenient truths that haunt American generals and civilian officials in Afghanistan - lack of infrastructure, corruption, poverty and illiteracy, political instability - the most vexing is the lack of cooperation from neighboring Pakistan. Forty million tribal Pashtuns straddle Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The Taliban moves easily back and forth across this porous border, launching attacks against American and allied forces and then retreating to sanctuaries in Pakistan. For a variety of reasons, the Pakistani Army has largely turned a blind eye towards the insurgent activity (or worse, has enabled it), frustrating U.S. efforts to establish sustained momentum against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it is Pakistan, not Afghanistan, where al-Qa'ida is most active.
Against this backdrop, American forces are now bracing for the Taliban's "spring offensive." During winter months, the Taliban rest and recuperate in the tribal regions of Pakistan. In the spring, they begin to move back across the border to retake territory and establish sway over the local population. The American military, fortified with the 30,000 additional troops ordered into the conflict by President Obama, will be put to the test in maintaining gains achieved over the winter. In our various meetings, General Petraeus and his commanders all warned that American casualties could spike during this period as both sides engage in fierce fighting to protect or establish gains.
President Obama has pledged to begin the withdrawal of American troops in July 2011 and to complete the transition to Afghan-led forces by the end of 2014. Most observers predict that the first troop reduction will be little more than a token gesture. That moves the debate to whether maintaining a major troop presence in Afghanistan for an additional two and a half years can achieve our stated goals and, even if it can, whether it is worth the additional cost in American lives and treasure. Considering the litany of challenges we face, I have doubts on both counts.