Afghanistan’s next 10 months could well determine the strength of the country’s government after U.S. forces complete their expected drawdown in 2014, said Rep. Denny Heck of Olympia who just returned from his first visit to the war zone as a U.S. Congressman.
He was one of five lawmakers who spent seven days traveling to U.S. military installations in Germany, Qatar and Afghanistan, as well as stopping in Kosovo for a meeting with leaders there.
Heck was elected in November to represent a district that includes some 46,000 military service members stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He’s been getting up to speed on defense issues on his trips home to the South Sound, but his journey to the war zone and the main military hospital in Germany was eye-opening, he said.
His trip did not change his opinion about the pace of the military’s drawdown in what has become America’s longest war. He favors President Obama’s plan to reduce the U.S. military footprint and end combat operations by the end of next year.
About 63,000 U.S. service members are in Afghanistan and the number is expected to drop to about 34,000 next winter.
“I have said all along we ought to leave as quickly as we safely can,” he said.
Heck views the period from now until Afghanistan’s scheduled national elections in April 2014 as pivotal because they’ll reveal:
- The effectiveness of the country’s security forces,
- Whether the U.S. can reach a political agreement to keep some forces in Afghanistan, as it could not in Iraq,
- And, how committed Afghanistan is to nurturing a democracy.
Heck met mainly with senior U.S. military officers in Kabul and at Bagram Air Field, as well as a trip to Forward Operating Base Lightning in eastern Afghanistan. He met with State Department officials and representatives from USAID.
He also met with a senior security adviser to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and Afghan military leaders who are partnered with senior U.S. commanders.
Both sides described stumbling blocks in negotiations for a bilateral security agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan. Similar negotiations between U.S. officials and Iraqi leaders failed in 2011 when Iraq refused to grant immunity to American service members.
Heck was told that Afghan police and soldiers are doing most of the fighting these days. U.S. service members more often are advising in the background.
“It’s on their shoulders now; we’re not shoulder to shoulder anymore,” he said.
Lewis-McChord has more than 4,200 service members in Afghanistan, though most of them are in the southern part of the country or serving in secret Special Operations Forces units.
Heck called his trip to Kosovo “uplifting” because of that country’s progress in securing its independence since the bloody fighting between Serbs and Albanians of the 1990s.
He was moved by his visit to Landstuhl Reiognal Medical Center in Germany, where he met a seriously wounded female soldier. He called it a privilege to hold her hand and thank her for her service.