Reps. Kilmer, Smith optimistic Afghans can stand on own

Congressmen return from war zone impressed by readiness of security forces as US prepares to leave

Staff writerAugust 31, 2013 

Afghan security forces are increasingly in control of their country and setting conditions for the safe drawdown of U.S. troops over the next year, two Puget Sound congressmen said Saturday after returning from trips to Kabul this week.

Proof of the progress will come in April when Afghanistan holds national elections that will demonstrate what kind of government it will have as Western forces leave, said U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.

“The Taliban is very much trying to delegitimize and disrupt those elections,” he said.

The visit was the first to the war for Kilmer, who was elected to his first term in Congress last fall. It was the “sixth or seventh” for his colleague, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue. Both are members of the House Armed Services Committee; Smith is the panel’s senior Democrat.

Each expressed confidence in Afghanistan’s security forces after holding meetings with the war’s top U.S. commander, Gen. Joseph Dunford, as well as with the chief of staff of the Afghan army. Both congressmen support the Obama administration’s plan to withdraw most U.S. forces by the end of 2014.

“I was very struck by the sense that our military has really made progress in preparing the Afghan national security forces with a goal of having the Afghan national security forces capable and credible in the eyes of the people,” Kilmer said.

This summer, Western forces scaled back their support of Afghan security forces in battles with insurgents. That change followed a gradual transition of the war to Afghan control since the Obama administration sent tens of thousands of more troops to the country for a “surge” there beginning in 2009.

In July, the United Nations reported that this year civilian casualties are up 23 percent – to 1,319 deaths and 2,533 injuries – with most of them harmed by insurgent groups. In addition, Afghan government leaders have told Western reporters that their security forces are taking more casualties as U.S. service members move into the background.

Smith said he saw evidence of significant improvements in the effectiveness of Afghan troops since his last visits.

“The Afghan national security forces have no choice but to step up,” he said. “And the Taliban are starting to lose their argument that they’re fighting foreign fighters.”

The congressmen also received updates on negotiations for a long-term security agreement that is intended to maintain a relatively small American military presence in Afghanistan to advise and train the country’s military.

Kilmer and Smith said it appeared to them that the negotiations would not fizzle as they did in Iraq, which refused to grant immunity for American service members. The hang-up in Afghanistan appears to be on security commitments its leaders want from the American military.

“I think we’ll get it done,” Smith said.

About 63,000 U.S. military services members are in Afghanistan today. That number is expected to fall to about 34,000 by February.

Kilmer said he enjoyed meeting troops from the Evergreen State in his visits to Bagram Air Field, Forward Operating Base Lightning, and the NATO commands in Kabul.

“To see them in theater and thank them, I was very grateful for that opportunity,” he said.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646

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