Anchorage -- Remarks to the World Affairs Council
*** As Prepared for Delivery ***
Good morning. I am happy to be home. I thank the World Affairs Council for the chance to talk about some of our most important foreign engagements in a generation. The World Affairs Council has long played an important role in increasing Alaskan's awareness and understanding of critical global issues.
Today, I'd like to offer you some of my insights about some of the hottest of hot spots in the news. Just last month I traveled with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and several other colleagues to the Islamic Republics of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Overall, I was encouraged by the professionalism and commitment of our men and women in uniform, as well as our civilian institutions that serve on the front lines in the War on Terror. Particularly since the surge in Afghanistan began, we have seen progress toward helping establish a country that can govern itself, defend its borders and be an important ally in fighting terrorism. There are areas of improvement we must focus on and remain realistic about the enormous challenges we face there.
Let me recap our trip. 15,000 mile journey across 10 ½ time zones. We made a quick stop in Kuwait and visited with our Ambassador and were reminded of our important partnership with that country and its support of our efforts in Iraq. We headed on to Islamabad Pakistan and met with Prime Minister Gilani, the Army Chief of Staff General Kayani and our outstanding Ambassador, Ann Patterson and her team.
In Afghanistan we met with President Karzai and most of his national security team, General Stan McChrystal at ISAF, visited the Police Training Center in Kabul, were thoroughly briefed by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and his strong team and then concluded by visiting our troops in the field at the Regional Command South in Kandahar and the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Camp Bastion, and a forward operating base in Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan.
Let me focus first on Afghanistan. The streets of Kabul reminded me that this is a nation whose security situation has been deteriorating steadily since 2005. In Afghanistan war is not a political decision, it's a way of life. There are many reasons for this not the least of which is the underfunded and undermanned Afghan security forces. Afghan police are paid $165 a month; just months ago, it was less than $100 per month. By comparison, the Taliban reportedly pay their insurgents between $200 and $300 a month. One in five police recruits test positive for drugs and only one in ten are able to read and write. One of our first stops was the Central Training Center for Afghan Police which has more than 520 students enrolled in the eight-week course.
One of the first things these new recruits are taught is their alphabet so they can accurately read license plates at check points. This is not modern-day policing.
Despite the sobering realities of police work in Afghanistan and the highest casualty rate of all types of security forces fighting the Taliban, these brave Afghan men and women go into harm's way with the daunting task of protecting their country with very little resources. Although the Defense Minister reported a record number of new recruits in December, President Karzai suggested that the nation may need to implement a draft to continue to meet their recruitment goals.
I also met with President Hamid Karzai. If we think there are pressures in Congress all we have to do is look at the life of President Karzai to know what real pressure is all about. To the east lies Pakistan, a nation with deep cultural ties to the Taliban and territorial ownership of Afghanistan's southern trade route to the sea. And to the west lies Iran. The exodus of Afghan refugees pouring across the border into Persian lands since the Taliban came to power has long created instability. More recently, growing U.S. bases in Afghanistan as well as standing bases in the Gulf Region are seen by Tehran as potential platforms for launching operations into Iran. In the midst of this regional pressure cooker President Karzai rules atop a political volcano. Given widespread lack of trust in his government as well as his security forces and the fact that 17 of his 24 cabinet nominees were rejected by the Afghan parliament, you can only imagine how President Karzai feels when he wakes up in the morning. I bet he wished he got a snow day.
In my time with President Karzai it became clear to me that one of the biggest political battles he and his nation face is legitimization of their Constitution. The country desperately needs to institutionalize open, corruption-free parliamentary elections. The Afghan government needs to resolve the date for parliamentary elections. This is important to the overall success of our strategy, the legitimacy of the government and our military commanders, who will need to coordinate security for the elections. The President asked for help from the U.S. and coalition forces to ensure that these critical parliamentary elections proceed in a fair manner.
One key to success in the region that helps bring about a more stable government, is to make sure that our military objectives are compatible with the political goals for the region.
A shining example in Afghanistan is the Kajaki Dam in the Helmand province. Water from this dam now generates 31 megawatts of power for the thousands of citizens in Kandahar and other communities throughout the Helmand province. Originally built 30 years ago, the rehabilitation of the Kajaki Dam was done by powerhouse workers, machinists, and subcontractors with one thing in common - they were all Afghan.
In appreciation for the efforts made by the U.S., Lashkar Gah, a city located on the Helmand River, is often referred to as "Little America." While the outcome of our efforts in Afghanistan is still very much uncertain, I think it's fair to say that the long-term impact of our efforts in this country will be decided more by ballots than by bullets.
In this endeavor, the Afghanistan I saw last month is a far better place to live than it was nearly nine years ago. While we can argue whether or not we can ever win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, we can say with certainty that since we reduced the Taliban's power, literacy has increased to almost 15 percent fewer children are dying, and ten times as many citizens have access to healthcare. If you are a woman in Afghanistan, you can get an education. In 2001 there were approximately 30 miles of paved roads in this country. Today Afghans enjoy paved roads stretching nearly 2,500 miles. That's an 8,333 percent increase in nine years. At that rate we would get a road to Nome.
So while pundits and critics will no doubt find fault and failures, in the end one truism remains -- Americans still do the right thing and generously extend a compassionate hand to friends in need.
As I mention Alaskans that I ran into, I should tell you about how I got into and out of the Helmand province. As this group is well aware, the Helmand province of Afghanistan is the unquestioned wild, wild, west of a perpetually dangerous country. The task of providing security for this dangerous place rests in the hands of Brigadier General Larry Nicholson and the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. General Nicholson was kind enough to send one of his new V-22 Osprey to pick us up. Would you believe that one of the flight crew was a young man from Big Lake?
In less than twelve months, the Helmand province has evolved from a Taliban stronghold to growing pockets of liberty and hope in Afghanistan thanks to NATO coalition troops. In December, President Obama announced his plan to deploy an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, many of whom are bound for Helmand. I have repeatedly supported giving General McCrystal the tools he needs to win this war, and in my time with the troops I saw the positive results of this surge everywhere I went.
I walked the streets of Garmsir and toured a bazaar in a part of Helmand province -- two months ago that would have been impossible. And while I felt safe walking through the streets of Garmsir, a reminder of the volatility of the region came less than five days after our departure when eight people were killed by a suicide bomber in the same community. In Garmsir the task of security rests not with U.S. Marines. It is the responsibility of the Afghan National Security Forces. While there, I met with tribal leaders and the District Governor. Sitting around a rough wooden table with a black tarp as a roof their mission was clear. They want to make this fight their own. They want to call the shots. They want to lead.
The tribal leaders I met are getting that chance to lead sooner than they may have thought. Last week, 15,000 U.S., NATO and Afghan soldiers began an offensive to retake the town of Marja, a major stronghold of the Taliban in Helmand. Nearly a week into the offensive Taliban resistance is getting more sporadic and less frequent -- a hopeful sign. However, sadly, in the wake of this fighting nearly 1,200 families have been driven from their homes and at least 15 civilians have died. General Nicholson reports that while major fighting may end soon, it may be a month before the entire battle space is cleared of insurgents. Perhaps some of the best news from the field this week is that by all accounts the Afghan soldiers have stepped up and are fighting well.
I have to say, though, that while the tide may be turning against the Taliban in Afghanistan, we cannot forget that this is a war of attrition, not one of annihilation. The bad guys will be there long after coalition troops leave. The Afghan people have known war for longer than most of our troops have been alive and they have learned to be cautious when pledging their allegiance outside their tribe.
There was considerable discussion throughout our trip about the time table which the President has set of July 2011 to begin the drawdown. I fear that a predictable U.S. withdrawal has led to a deficit of trust with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They've never seen an occupier finish the job and aren't sure the U.S. will either. Many argue that this trust deficit further empowers the Taliban's steadfast resistance and enduring lure.
But as we demonstrate our resolve not only in the surge of forces in Afghanistan, we have to also keep up with our engagement with the civilian institutions of Afghanistan and with the civilian governments of Pakistan and its military.
We cannot fully understand the dynamics of Afghanistan without at least a brief look across the Hindu Kush Mountains into Pakistan. In my meetings with Prime Minister Gilani and Chief of Army Staff General Kayani I detected a cloud of paranoia from both the military and the government.
Even within the government hierarchy, there exist divisions between those who support the goals of the U.S. and its allies and those more sympathetic to the Taliban. Those dynamics are not conducive to consensus and trust.
Pakistan's civilian leaders must defend their decisions to a population of 180 million people, 80 percent of whom oppose cooperation with the United States in the war on terrorism. They view the current Afghanistan government as pro-India and fear the prospects of being flanked by enemies along both their eastern and western borders. Woven throughout this quilt of insecurity is the trust deficit weighing on Pakistan in the same way it does on Afghanistan. In their view, there is a historical precedent of the United States abandoning Pakistan when it no longer serves U.S. interests such as in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
Leaders in Pakistan face a Catch-22. If they support the United States they will continue to receive much needed aid such as that provided by the Kerry-Lugar legislation that authorized $7.5 billion over the next five years. This seemingly benevolent attempt to improve relations had the opposite effect on the people of Pakistan. It inflamed the masses who saw this as another example of the United States exerting its influence in Pakistani internal matters. The military reaction to this aid was to publicly denounce it.
Perhaps these key stakeholders gave us a glimpse into what the future holds for U.S. and Pakistani cooperation. As most of you likely saw, earlier this week, a joint Pakistani/CIA operation captured Mullah Abul Ghani Baradar. Baradar is not only the operational commander of the Afghan Taliban, he is also second only to Mohammed Omar in the insurgency hierarchy. This is a big catch, and it comes with great risk for Pakistani leadership.
I hope you can appreciate how difficult the situation is along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Progress in this region depends on the primary stakeholders' willingness to take great risks to rebuild their country.
Now let us turn to Iraq. Here we find a fledgling democracy that shows great promise, but as many scholars will attest, peace in this region is a mere interlude of perpetual war. I hope that this is not the case as we wind down our operations in Iraq.
For the first time since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the total number of American troops in the country fell below 100,000 this week. Through the successful cooperation of the United States and its coalition partners, Iraq has evolved into nation where sectarian violence and oppression have started to give way to national pride, a developing economy, a well-trained and stable military and a population that values and appreciates its religious and social diversity. For the first time since gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1932, women in Iraq have the ability to seek higher education, social equality and political office. In fact, during the provincial elections in 2009, of the nearly 14,500 candidates vying for the 440 provincial seats, roughly 4,000 of them were Iraqi women.
Increased political stability and reduced violence have paved the way to recovery for Iraq's economy. Iraq's oil revenues are up and the government is seeking international trade opportunities. With the influx of new revenue, they have thousands of new hospitals, water treatments plants, power plants, schools and bridges.
There are two key dates on the Iraqi calendar representing the next step in the path to a peaceful and prosperous nation: March 7, 2010, and December 31, 2011. On March 7th Iraqis will hold their national elections and on December 31st of next year U.S. combat forces in the country will be gone. For the Iraqi people and the international community, these dates are profoundly significant. Following the March elections, Iraq will have a full democratically elected government in place, poised to govern and protect its citizens without assistance from the international community. Furthermore, after U.S. combat forces depart, all military and police activities will be carried out by Iraqi forces. As we continue to support the Iraqis in their path to self governance, we must be keenly aware that this is still a violent country. History has shown that this violence tends to peak leading up to elections and we must prepare.
It is increasingly important that the Iraqi citizens and government rise to meet these new challenges. Self governance, domestic security, military operations, and economic prosperity must become commonplace in Iraq. It is time for Iraqis to govern and lead. Being a democracy is not without its challenges, but Iraq and its citizens are perched on the doorstep of history. With continued international support, Iraqis will have the tools to achieve their political, social and economic goals.
And now we finally turn to Iran - the epicenter of a great deal of international anxiety. I have no doubt that most in this room are familiar with the most recent Permanent Five Plus 1 or "P5+1" package offered to Iran. This combination of sticks and carrots represented the collective resolve of the most influential nations in the world community. The deadline for response expired at the end of last year. And what did Iran have to say? This week they declared themselves a nuclear nation. This announcement came on the heels of earlier announcements of their intention to build 10 new uranium enrichment sites. Just yesterday the United Nations Atomic Energy Agency expressed concern that Iran is working on a warhead to deliver nuclear missiles. And just hours ago, Iran's Supreme leader said, Oh no, we are not interested in developing nuclear weapons. This Iranian response is both concerning and alarmingly contradictory.
These disconcerting responses are drawing international reaction, with Russia and France joining the United States in expressing concern over the latest reports from the U.N. Atomic Energy Agency. Sadly, China, which has surpassed both the European Union and Russia as Iran's most significant trading partner, according to reports in the Financial Times this week, remains silent. Clearly, diplomatic conversations at the highest levels continue in the hope that the world will be able to talk Iran off the ledge it has placed itself upon.
But it is increasingly apparent that talk therapy alone is not achieving desired results. Last year, I joined as co-sponsor of two pieces of legislation that would facilitate U.S. sanctions against Iran. The first would authorize President Obama to place sanctions on international businesses, including financial institutions, doing business with Iran. The second would promote disinvestment by U.S. pension funds and other institutional investors in international companies that do business with Iran. The House of Representatives has passed each of those measures as stand-alone bills and sent them to the Senate. The Senate combined the two bills into one, ratcheted up the sanctions, passed it by unanimous consent and sent it back to the House of Representatives.
As I suggested to the Alaska Legislature yesterday, a nuclear Iran isunthinkable. And that is not just unthinkable from the point of view of the United States or Israel. It is also unthinkable from the point of view ofIran's Arab neighbors. For a nuclear Iran could spark an arms race in the Arab world that will make it even more difficult to achieve peace in this troubled region.
My trip to the region was vitally important in gaining a better understanding of the challenges that confront us. As a Senator from a state like Alaska, with a strong military community, I feel the weight of war on our nation. Our military men and women are fighting to not only create a democracy but to teach people in the region the true value of a democracy. I can think of no higher purpose and I applaud them for their work and dedication and commit to give them all they need to succeed in this critical area of the globe. Thank you.