KINDERHOOK-Congressman Chris Gibson (R-20th) returned last week from an information gathering trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and Bahrain sponsored by the House Armed Services Committee. Mr. Gibson, a former army colonel, was appointed to the committee after being sworn in this winter for his first term.
Among others, the delegation met with top military leaders, including General Lloyd Austin, who commands U.S. troops in Iraq, General David Petraeus, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. They also met with American soldiers and representatives of the Iraqi and Afghan governments and military, and toured military outposts in those countries while staying in guarded embassy compounds.
The delegation also visited Bahrain, a neighbor of Saudi Arabia and a strategic U.S. ally that hosts the Fifth Fleet. The Navy directs its operations in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Arabian Sea from headquarters in Manama, Bahrain’s capital city, where 1,000 Americans are stationed on shore. Since early February, anti-government protests there have been countered by force. In Bahrain, the delegation met with government leaders.
Upon his return from the week long journey that began February 20, Congressman spoke by conference call with reporters from his district. He was emphatic in his praise of dedication, courage, and hard of American troops, and he credited their work for the progress he observed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But his enthusiasm about the progress, and the possibility of a future drawdown of troops from both countries planned for 2012 to 2014 was accompanied by an awareness of ongoing problems.
“Iraq is on track,” said the Congressman who reported that the number of U.S. soldiers stationed in that country will drop from 48,000 to only 150 by the end of this year. The remaining troops will serve under the direction of the US embassy. Congressman Gibson found a “significantly safer” environment, with the incidence of attacks down from around 100 per day across the country when he served there in 2007 as commander of an 82nd Airborne battalion, to around 10 daily attacks countrywide now.
He noted that the Iraqi government, elected in January of 2010 but required many months before members took their seats, as a sign of a return to normalcy. He also stressed the what he sees as tremendous progress made by Iraqi troops and police, who have achieved a new level of professionalism and a higher level of acceptance in local communities.
Protests that occurred in Iraq after the delegation left, he said, did not question the legitimacy of the government, but were about services.
“That [Prime Minister] Malachi allowed them to occur is a credit to new government,” he said of the protests. Rolling electrical outages remain a problem, he learned, because of constantly rising demand to run air conditioning, computers and other appliances. Since the last election Iraq’s government now includes representatives of the country’s major ethnic and religious groups, including Sunni, Shia and Kurds, but a defense position in the government still needs to be filled.
The Iraqi army needs to strengthen its institutional side and develop practical systems like the ability to deliver spare parts or to generate sustained forces. U.S. troops today have a lower profile in Baghdad, where Iraqis now control the International Zone, formerly the Green Zone.
Once the military departs, the U.S. plans to remain in contact with the Iraqi government by providing advice and through military deployment exercises. The 150-person force remaining will advise and assist Iraqi institutions, he said.
In Afghanistan, the surge President Obama ordered in December of 2009 has succeeded in its primary purpose, resulting in improved security, Mr. Gibson said. In the cities of Kabul and Kandahar, the delegation saw reconstruction sites, and learned about efforts to secure the Ring Road, a major highway, and the country’s border with Pakistan. They discussed cooperation between U.S. and Afghan forces, heard about counter terrorist activities and ongoing work to assist Afghanistan in building military and civil institutions to support the country’s stability.
He called the country’s lack of literacy a major challenge, noting that 86 % of new military recruits are illiterate. The U.S. is currently working to set up vocational branch schools to train police and soldiers in marksmanship, leadership, and to build literacy and other communication skills.
While he expressed confidence in the progress the country has made, he said he was not optimistic about the government of President Hamid Karzai, because of the lack of responsiveness to the country’s problems coupled with their corruption. But he still believes that the goal of a troop draw down in Afghanistan by 2014 is realistic, though problems will remain.
“In Afghanistan it’s important to stay the course through 2014. It’s of vital security interest not to allow al-Qaida to regain sanctuary in Afghanistan,” he said.
In Bahrain, Mr. Gibson said leaders told the delegation that protests there were significantly different from those in Egypt and Libya and that they were responsive to protesters. The U.S. embassy, he said, was unable to confirm that the government had used lethal force to combat protests. He also said that the issues protesters focused on include the lack of citizenship of the population, which includes some 200,000 nomads, and the delivery of services. “The government feels they are being responsible and will double its efforts,” he said. Bahrain’s non-citizens, he pointed out receive free housing and health care provided by the government.
In words that seemed to echo the recent speech by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said that any future secretary who starts a war like the current ones in Iraq and Afghanistan “should have his head examined,” Congressman Gibson said that it’s important to think about what we want our national security to look like, saying it should be in a manner consistent with a republic rather than an empire. He said we need to station our troops primarily in the continental U.S., consolidate command control and keep the military effective and cost efficient. Its primary function would be to project forces to secure our interests, to enhance diplomacy and act as a deterrent.