Senators Get Firsthand Look At New Afghanistan
January 9, 2002
Kevin Begos and Gil Klein
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Leaders throughout central Asia are crying out for the United States to stay engaged in the region once military action in Afghanistan is over, two U.S. senators visiting there said Tuesday.
``This conflict is far from over," said Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who is traveling with eight other senators to visit leaders in five central Asian countries as well as American troops on the ground and at sea. ``It's clear that we have a great deal more work to do in Afghanistan."
These senators are learning just how much damage was done in 1989 when the United States walked away from Afghanistan after supporting the Afghan uprising against the Soviet Union.
``I certainly learned a history lesson," Sen. Bill Nelson, D- Fla., told reporters in Washington in a conference call from Islamabad. ``In 1989 we packed up, turned on our heels and walked away. That came back to bite us awfully hard on Sept. 11. We cannot let it happen again."
Edwards, speaking to a reporter in Islamabad, said he expected the people back home to support an American effort to rebuild Afghanistan. ``We can't have breeding grounds for more Osama bin Ladens," Edwards said.
The senators are traveling from Turkey to Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and for five hours to a heavily guarded airfield in Afghanistan. They are members of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees who want to get a firsthand look at the political and military situation in the region.
Edwards said briefings from intelligence officials left him upbeat about unfinished business in the war.
``There are several things that are clear," he said. ``One is we will get bin Laden. And we will get [Mullah] Omar," the Taliban leader.
The senators traveling in the region did not mention the chronic insecurity that has taken hold in key parts of Afghanistan. Relief workers fly into Kabul because the road through Jalalabad is considered too dangerous. They also avoid much of the southern area around Kandahar.
Around Mazar-e Sharif in the north, tensions have risen between two rival warlords, both of whom received support from the United States during the military campaign.
Nelson said the United States must supply not only humanitarian aid, but also help rebuild Afghanistan's judicial and education systems that were wrecked by the Taliban.
``Nation building has to be successful because the stakes are so high," Nelson said. ``We have assured them [Afghan leaders] that the United States would not show interest and then walk away like we did in the 1980s."
Security was high for the senators, some of whom are considering a bid for the presidency in 2004. The group was led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and included Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Charles Hagel, R-Neb., and Jack Reed, D-R.I.
By necessity of security they stayed in five-star hotels and traveled under military escort that kept them far away from the grinding poverty and danger that make up daily life in the region where mud huts are considered luxury accommodations in the Afghan refugee camps.
Nelson described a harrowing night flight into Bagram airfield outside of the Afghani capital of Kabul. The U.S. plane in which the senators were flying maneuvered in over the mountains without any lights. The pilot used night-flying goggles to land at the dark airfield.
``The first thing they told us after we got there was not to step off the concrete because of the land mines," Nelson said.