WASHINGTON — Continuing his criticism that President Barack Obama isn’t talking enough about the Afghan War, the retiring chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on Monday lauded the progress troops have made there while emphasizing the need for more support.
Obama “has talked about Afghanistan only a handful of times during his presidency,” Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.) said at a National Press Club luncheon. “And each time, President Obama praised his run for the exits or pitied our wounded, instead of lauding the accomplishments of our troops and the importance of the mission they were given to fight.”
U.S. troops booted out the Taliban and built up Afghan National Security Forces to where they are currently handling the brunt of operations to keep insurgents from regaining a foothold, McKeon said.
“(ANSF) made gains; they built on those gains, and they secured those gains,” McKeon said. “These guys were taking their baby steps not five years ago. Today, they’re holding onto territory that took a 50-nation coalition to win.”
As a result, Afghanistan has made the largest gains in basic health and development factors in the world in the last decade, to where 60 percent of the population now have cell phones and 65 percent have Internet, according to McKeon, who announced last month that he will not seek re-election.
Twelve international airlines now fly into Kabul, up from two, and there are now about 70 TV stations where there was only one news source in 2001, McKeon said.
The Afghan Ministry of Education estimates that nearly 8 million children are in school, up from 1 million and there are now more than 13,000 general education schools in the country. Women’s rights are also improving, with more than 40,000 females now attending school, he said.
Despite the gains, American support for the Afghan War continues to dwindle, which McKeon blamed on what he calls Obama’s avoidance for speaking publicly about the war. A Gallup poll last week found that most Americans now believe the Afghan War was a mistake, whereas less than 30 percent thought so at the start of Obama’s presidency.
"Counterinsurgencies have two fronts — the one out there, and the one right here,” McKeon said. “The troops have held their line out there. The President has not held the line here.
“It’s not much to ask, that every once in a while, we hear from our Commander-in-Chief,” he said. “We deserve to hear about the steps forward. We deserve to hear, and understand, why we fight.”
The White House responded that the president has spoken about Afghanistan on several occasions, including the highest-profile occasion, the State of the Union speech in January.
“My fellow Americans, no other country in the world does what we do,” Obama said. “As this time of war draws to a close, a new generation of heroes returns to civilian life. ... We’ll keep working to help all our veterans translate their skills and leadership into jobs here at home. And we will all continue to join forces to honor and support our remarkable military families.”
The administration needs to focus less on talking about withdrawing military because US support is still needed in Afghanistan to complete its mission of creating a stable and sustainable government well after troops are gone, McKeon said.
“Put plainly, without our support – and that support includes presence and money—the Afghan Security Forces can’t execute,” McKeon said, pointing out how gains in Iraq have unraveled because troops were in a rush to leave. “But filling these gaps doesn’t mean that America’s sons and daughters will be stuck on the front lines forever.”
While Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that would outline a U.S. presence in Afghanistan after 2014, polls have shown that 70 percent of Afghans want American troops to stay, according to McKeon. The Loya Jirga, a grand council of leaders from around Afghanistan, also supports the BSA.
NATO's secretary general said last week that it will likely be up to Karzai’s successor to sign the agreement.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) echoed McKeon’s remarks, saying it was vital for troops to remain in Afghanistan so that progress won’t be jeopardized. The U.S. is seeking to keep about 10,000 troops there beyond the Dec. 31 drawdown date for training and counterterrorism purposes.
“We all want to bring our remaining troops home as soon as possible, but succeeding in Afghanistan is vital to our national security interests and our mission must take priority over any calendar dates,” Boehner said in a statement. “The president has an obligation to better make that case to the American people.”