Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Sen. Murkowski is optimistic after Afghan tour

FAIRBANKS - Sen. Lisa Murkowski returned from a trip to Afghanistan last week with an unexpected sense of optimism about the future of the troubled country.

Murkowski said she was encouraged to see more responsibility being taken by the Afghan army and police in securing the country. A surge in recruitment efforts makes her think the Afghan people believe their government is destined to succeed.

The positive reports come from a battlefield that has proved stubborn for the U.S. military in the past few years. Following increasing attacks by Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, President Barack Obama plans to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan this year to help stabilize the country.

"I left Afghanistan feeling more optimistic about the potential of our success with our NATO allies than when I went over," Murkowski said.

Murkowski was part of a congressional delegation of Republican lawmakers to the region, which also included Senate Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware. They were briefed by senior U.S. military officials, as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and also

traveled to Pakistan to meet with Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Rzai Gilani.

Murkowski said one of the most vivid examples of change came during a walk through a marketplace in a Helmand Province city. That region has been notorious for its instability. The Afghan police provided protection for the delegation, which strolled through an area that had a surprisingly peaceful atmosphere.

"The reality that we were doing something that a few months ago wasn't conceivable was really quite remarkable," she said.

But there were also reminders to be cautious in overstating the progress being made. Just two days later, she said the delegation got a harsh reminder of continuing violence - eight people were killed during a riot in the same area.

Murkowski said the briefings also included information that made clear how daunting some of the challenges are for the Afghan government.

In southern Afghanistan, she said less than 10 percent of men are considered literate. Tasks as simple as learning to read the numbers off a license plate must be taught to police trainees.

"There are so many things that are so fundamental, so basic," she said. "We need to understand, as they build their army they're dealing with factors and considerations that in our society we can barely imagine."

Local military personnel have a light presence in Afghanistan.

Fort Wainwright soldiers aren't currently involved in the mission, and a spokesman on base said plans haven't been made official for future deployments to the country. There are 300-400 airmen from Eielson Air Force Base deployed annually in support of missions in the region, but the name of the country they are located in hasn't been released by the military.


Source: By Jeff Richardson. Originally published by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on January 16, 2010