Look for the United States to be sending resources not only to Afghanistan, but Pakistan and the rest of the region for the foreseeable future, a group of swing Democratic senators said toward the end of their fact-finding trip to the Middle East.
The five senators, all members of the Moderate Democrats Working Group led by Evan Bayh, have spent the past few days touring the area and are scheduled to return to Washington on Wednesday. On a conference call Tuesday, the senators said a whirlwind tour of meetings with Pakistani officials convinced them that further U.S. commitment wouldn't go to waste. They also made it clear that U.S. commitment wouldn't be ending anytime soon.
Alaska Senator Mark Begich said the U.S. was ready for a "long-term commitment to Pakistan, recognizing that we're not just there for the moment, that we want to be there assisting them in their long-term economic and social sustainability." He cited the need for increased diplomacy and trade with India. "Let me make sure we emphasize one point, that it's a regional approach, not just Pakistan by itself," Begich said.
The U.S. delegation met with a wide variety of military and political officials, Delaware Senator Tom Carper said, and they all told the senators the same thing. "They said this is just not about a military victory," Carper said. "What we must do is raise the standard of living, the quality of life in the people in these areas along the northwest border."
The nation-building foreseen by the Democratic senators involves management at the local level and efforts to improve Pakistan's military capacity. Carper highlighted the rebuilding and repopulation of Kashmir, as well as maintenance of Pakistan's relatively small helicopter fleet, as top priorities. But he said U.S. forces will have plenty of time to think about other projects during a period of "nation-building governance."
"That's what they want. That's what they need," he said.
The senators are aware that U.S. anti-terror funding to Pakistan since 9/11 has had a habit of disappearing, but Colorado's Mark Udall said they heard "a much different tone" in discussions with the nation's business community. "There are no guarantees," Udall said. "The past is illustrative and can be educational but the past doesn't necessarily have to be prologue, either."
Further outreach to moderate clerics is also necessary, Udall said, to limit the influence of jihadists in the region.
Begich, Carper and Udall were joined on the trip by Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. All but Carper are freshman senators.
The nation building in the region, far from nearing an end, is just beginning. As with Pakistan, Carper said investment in Afghan infrastructure and economic growth must be as much a part of U.S. strategy going forward as importing trainers to expand the national army. He declined to discuss even a ballpark date for military withdrawal.
"We're beginning our buildup now," he said.