Sen. Tester in Afghanistan says war discussion needed

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

With a pullout deadline nearing, America's future in Afghanistan needs serious discussion by federal lawmakers, Sen. Jon Tester said Friday, speaking from Kabul.

The Montana Democrat, who is wrapping up a week-long tour of Middle East hot spots, said tough choices need to be made about delivering Afghanistan from war without leaving it forever dependent on the United States.

"The question becomes 'How long can you do this and how long can you, in the process of helping them become secure and safe and stable, make sure we're not left with a group of people relying on us for their sustainability,' " Tester said.

It's been more than decade since the United States and its allies launched missiles at Taliban and al-Qaida targets in Afghanistan in response to Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. Through Oct. 1 of last year, Congress has authorized more than $1.2 trillion in Afghan war spending.

Afghanistan's major cities Kabul and Kandahar have become more safe, as evidence by U.S. senators being allowed to tour those areas this week as part of their review of the war.

But large portions of the country, particularly along the Pakistan border are still in conflict. Taliban fighters retreat into the mountainous region of Pakistan for protection and stock up on raw bomb-making ingredients like fertilizer.

Pakistan's role in the war was a key discussion point as lawmakers met with U.S. military commanders on the ground. The delegation also observed ally-trained Afghanistan troops preparing to take battle control as America begins a pullout President Barack Obama has vowed to start this July.

"We need to follow through with that and start the process," Tester said. "It's kind of the goal line and it's where the goal line should be."

There's still much to be done to get Afghanistan to a point where it is not only safe, but capable of protecting itself, Tester said. There's a level of poverty in Afghanistan completely foreign to Americans. In parts of the country people live in caves, Tester said, adding that there's no practical way to bring them into 21st Century.

But Afghanistan does need a fighting chance at safety and stability if it's to succeed. Non-military workers are trying to deliver local government officials to a point where services aren't so vulnerable to corruption. It won't be easy, Tester said.

In Congress, a debate over the war's future waits. President Obama has proposed cutting $42 billion from the war budget beginning Oct. 1. The cut would lower annual Afghan war spending to $117 billion, its lowest since 2005 according to the Congressional Research Service.

With the new cuts will have to come new strategy.