In his first press conference since assuming the position of ranking Republican member of the House Committee on Armed Services, Congressman Buck McKeon briefed reporters about a fact-finding mission he and a Congressional delegation conducted in Afghanistan last week.
“When I got the job, I knew there were two things I needed to do immediately: one was visit Guantanamo because I’d never been there and I wanted to see it first hand,” McKeon said. “Politically it’s kind of a hot potato, nobody wants them (prisoners) here in this country. The President issued an Executive Order that it would be closed next January, but since then, he has extended it for six months, so the commission plan is to close it within a year.”
He said that there are 240 prisoners currently in custody, describing them as “a bunch of bad actors.”
“The other thing I had to do was go to Afghanistan,” he continues.
The delegation led by McKeon met with senior American, international and Afghan military and civilian leaders, including General Stanley McChrystal, who commands the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force; Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the senior U.S. diplomat to Afghanistan and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
McKeon said that the visit started with a daylong briefing in Kabul, followed by a tour of Camp Leatherneck in the Helmand Province.
He told reporters that the terrain of Afghanistan was reminiscent of Southern California’s, outside of the jagged peaks that line the northern portion of the country.
He said the topography was also close to that of the California desert, where Army and Marines train for their deployment in the hot spots.
The Congressman explained that the major difference between fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan lies in the sophistication of the area’s people. Iraq is a developed country, where the war takes place in an urban setting. Afghanistan is the second poorest country in the world and also the place that produces 90 percent of the world’s opium.
The Taliban -which McKeon likened to a powerful gang – “runs” farms, forcing farmers to plant, grow and harvest poppies, fighting in the “off season.” From those farmers, they extract $60 to 80 million a year.
“We moved 4,500 Marines in there July 1,” McKeon said. “Their mission is to go in and physically and psychologically separate the Taliban from the people. Every day, our troops are asked ‘when are you leaving’ because the Taliban told them we have been there before and will leave again. They lead by intimidation.”
He said that the Taliban can also be divided into two groups: “big T” and “little T” – the former being terrorists who just want to kill Americans – or anyone who doesn’t do their bidding – and the latter being the farmers and townspeople who just want to survive. McKeon said that most of the Big T’s have fled to Pakistan.
“We have to provide the security so they can get by without the Taliban,” he said. “We’re not going in there trying to kill anybody.”
Part of the NATO goal in Afghanistan is to train the people to farm crops other than opium and to help their police and military forces fend for themselves.
“Their police are not trained. Most of them are trying, but they are under-equipped and under-trained,” McKeon explained. “We have to move civilians in and they have to learn to stand on their own. It will take time and money.”
McKeon wrapped up his fact-finding mission by touring California military training facilities at China Lake, Fort Irwin and Twentynine Palms, where Hollywood has stepped up to help the military create lifelike battle situations.
“There’s a whole village where you think you’re in Iraq,” he said. “They have actors who come in and role play; we were walking down the street talking to a general and they were trying to sell us a goat’s head. They’d “blow up” a humvee, with “blood” everywhere and casualties, then talk about what they did right and wrong, then they’d do it again.”
McKeon said that soldiers who had been previously deployed commented on the realism, saying that it was taking them back with its accuracy.
“This kind of training is what saves lives,” he concluded.
Did his up close and personal tour of the warzone change McKeon’s thinking? The Congressman said that it certainly helped him understand briefings a little better and admitted he saw things he’d never seen before.
“Some things made me feel really good about where we are, but I also learned some thing that are happening around the world that make me nervous. I sense the urgency and responsibility.”