Merkley returns from Afghanistan with more questions than answers

WASHINGTON — Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley conceded Thursday that the challenges in Afghanistan are “immense” and if the United States is to succeed it must embark on a full-scale, long term nation building effort.

At the same time, however, Merkley said such an expensive and long-term commitment may not be in the United State’s best interest and whatever approach is followed should be clearly and convincingly explained.

Merkley provided his assessment after a whirlwind, two-day visit to Afghanistan as part of an official congressional visit. Along with colleagues Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Rep. Baron HIll, D-Ind., Merkley met with senior military officials and Afghan leaders in Kabul and ventured to a northern province to meet with tribal leaders.

The trip, Merkley told reporters in a conference call during a lay-over in Brussels, was exhausting.

“It’s been a very intense eight days,” Merkley said of a trip that included stops in Kuwait, Pakistan and India as well as Afghanistan. The group is scheduled to arrive back in the United States on Friday.

It also exposed the complicated forces affecting the region and to a major extent, the likelihood of NATO and the United States succeeding.

“There is a real sense of momentum,” Merkley said, referring to the U.S.-led offensive into areas of the country controlled by the Taliban. “The attacks on the Taliban have been very successful.”

At the same time, Merkley said that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in the region, admitted during a conversation that there is no assurance the surge strategy will work. But, McChrystal told Merkley it is the best strategy so far.

“We made a big mistake eight years ago occupying Afghanistan rather than” taking a more comprehensive approach as is being pursued now, Merkley said. “This is nation building. We’re building government institutions. We’re building the economy. We’re building everything.”

Merkley added, “After years in which Afghanistan was neglected (by the United States), there now is momentum.”

While Merkley said there are signs of progress as the central government stabilizes and Al-Qaeda gets hemmed it, he hedged on how he might vote in the future when Congress is asked to provide funding for the war. The cost, he said, is enormous.

“We need to keep asking, what is our ultimate strategy?” he said.

In addition to security and military goals, Merkley said there are dozen difficult goals that must be addressed if the country is to stabilize and effectively govern itself. They include everything from easing the numbing poverty to attacking widespread illiteracy to slowing the drug trade. There are cultural issues as well that must be resolved. Tribal leaders, he said, don’t always have the same priorities as the national government. Corruption in the government itself must be reduced too.