On March 25th, I returned with three other members of Congress from a six-day trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. I came away, as all do, tremendously impressed by the commitment of American soldiers and civilians to executing their mission. We were in Afghanistan at a watershed moment when the arrival of the "spring offensive" by the Taliban will test whether gains made by American troops over the winter can be sustained.
The United States faces a monumental challenge in Afghanistan. Consider these sobering statistics: Afghanistan is the poorest nation in the world outside of Africa, is the second most corrupt nation after Somalia (according to Transparency International), has an 80 percent illiteracy rate and is home to 90 percent of the world's opium production. While the country has valuable mineral ore and natural gas deposits, there is no infrastructure to tap these resources to fund Afghanistan's vast needs. At times on our trip, it felt as though American troops and civilian personnel were starting from scratch in an effort to establish the rudiments of a secure, modern society. And this after nearly 10 years of fighting the war.
The stated mission of the United States is to build up the infrastructure and security apparatus of the Afghan government sufficiently that it can contain the Taliban and keep Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. At President Obama's direction, a major new emphasis of our efforts is on training the Afghan army to assume responsibility for the country's security.
We visited a vast 22,000 acre training base in East Kabul, where thousands of new Afghan recruits begin their military instruction with classes in basic literacy and numeracy (some cannot even count the number of rounds of ammunition being issued to them). Since President Obama's speech one year ago at West Point announcing a surge of American troops, the number of volunteer recruits has climbed, and thousands of trained Afghan soldiers are being added to the army every day. However, the strength of the force is sapped by a persistently high attrition rate. The question is how quickly and at what level of sustainability the Afghan forces can be trained and deployed to provide security and stability for their own country.
And what of President Hamid Karzai? The most generous description of him we heard is that of an enigmatic Afghan nationalist who is balancing myriad competing interests and constituencies. This was from American officials who appear resigned to the notion that Mr. Karzai is the only viable option to hold together a national government. However, the level of corruption being tolerated by Mr. Karzai (if not sanctioned by him) makes our partnership with him a questionable investment at best.
The most vexing problem of all is the lack of cooperation from neighboring Pakistan. The Taliban moves easily back and forth across this porous border, launching attacks against American and allied forces and then retreating to sanctuaries in Pakistan. This is the situation in Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan. There, we visited an American military base that is carrying out dangerous raids on Taliban strongholds and weapons caches, with mixed success.
For a variety of reasons, the Pakistani army has largely turned a blind eye toward the insurgent activity within Pakistan's borders (or worse, has enabled it), frustrating U.S. efforts to establish any real momentum against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it is Pakistan, not Afghanistan, where Al-Qaeda is most active.
Against this backdrop, American forces are now bracing for the Taliban's "spring offensive," when insurgents who took winter refuge in the tribal regions of Pakistan begin moving back across the border to retake territory and establish sway over the local population. In our various meetings, General David Petraeus and his commanders all warned that American casualties could spike during this period as both sides engage in fierce fighting to protect or establish gains.
President Obama has pledged to begin the withdrawal of American troops in July 2011 and to complete the transition to Afghan-led forces by the end of 2014. Most observers predict that the first troop reduction will be little more than a token gesture. That moves the debate to whether maintaining a major troop presence in Afghanistan for an additional two and a half years can achieve our stated goals and, even if it can, whether it is worth the additional cost in American lives and treasure.
Considering the litany of challenges we face, I have doubts on both counts.
Congressman John Sarbanes, a Democrat, represents Maryland's 3rd District. He may be contacted at http://www.sarbanes.house.gov.