Congressman sees potential progress in tour of Afghanistan
By GARY WHITE | The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla. | Published: November 24, 2018
LAKELAND (Tribune News Service) — Eighteen years after American troops first entered Afghanistan, the country remains in a precarious state.
That is one of the lessons U.S. Rep. Darren Soto drew from a recent five-day visit to the Asian nation as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation.
A terrorist attack killed two doctors while Soto was in the country, and a bomb blast the day the contingent left killed at least 50 people.
It was the first time that Soto, D-Celebration, has visited Afghanistan since joining Congress in January 2017.
"I think it's important that members of Congress go to different areas where we have troops in harm's way to make sure they have the resources they need," Soto said Friday.
He traveled with a congressional group that also included Jim Banks, R-Indiana; Bill Flores, R-Texas; Conor Lamb, D-Pennsylvania; Larry Bucshon, R-Indiana; Tom Suozzi, D-New York; and Rob Wittman, R-Virginia. Soto said a substantial security contingent accompanied the members of Congress during their time in Afghanistan.
Soto said he met with American troops while in Afghanistan, including service members from Kissimmee, Oviedo, Tampa, Jacksonville and other Florida cities.
"Obviously they appreciated us being there just before Thanksgiving," he said.
President George W. Bush ordered American forces to Afghanistan in October 2001 as part of his response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. One objective of the invasion – the dismantling of the Al Qaeda terrorist group – has been accomplished, but American troops continue to support the efforts of Afghan soldiers to defeat the Taliban.
After the killing of Osama bin Laden and the collapse of Al Qaeda, an offshoot of the Islamic State, or ISIS, has arisen to become a destabilizing force in Afghanistan, Soto said. The group, known as ISIS K, is responsible for some recent terror attacks in the country, including a suicide bombing on the day the congressional group departed.
That attack at a gathering of Islamic clerics killed at least 50 and injured more than 80, according to news reports.
Asked if he saw or heard anything that surprised him, Soto replied, "Yes, that ISIS K is now an even greater threat to our country, regarding terrorist attacks, and to the Afghan government, than the Taliban appears to be, given their extreme tactics and complete unwillingness to want to engage in any peace talks. They're viewed as ideologues, while the Taliban is viewed as Afghans who want to eventually, potentially come together in a unity government."
Soto summed up the main points he heard from the service members he met on the trip.
"They believe in the mission, and that the situation is still dangerous there," he said. "That terrorism coming from that region is still a threat to the homeland, but they appear encouraged by potential peace talks that could occur, perhaps even before the (presidential) election in April."
Soto said the best hope for improvements in Afghanistan lies with negotiations between the Taliban and the government. The Taliban, an Islamic political group, ruled much of the country before the 2001 invasion by American troops and allies.
The organization, which enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law, has been waging an insurgency since losing control of most areas of the country.
Soto said he's encouraged by discussions between government officials and Taliban leaders.
"I'm hopeful that if we can get peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban rebels, that will allow us to have a united front to take on ISIS and allow us to wind down some of our troops there, ultimately leading to the end of the war," he said.
Soto said American forces in Afghanistan have two main roles: performing counterterrorism functions and supporting the Afghan military. He said he hopes to see enough progress in training Afghan forces that American troops can largely withdraw, as has happened in Iraq.
Soto said it was the fourth trip he has made since joining Congress to areas where U.S. troops are stationed. His previous tour took him to Iraq and Kuwait, the demilitarized zone of South Korea and the borders of Lebanon and Syria (during a trip to Israel).
President Donald Trump has received some criticism lately for not having made any trips to combat zones since he took office. Trump allowed TV coverage of phone calls he made to troops on Thanksgiving from Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach.
"I strongly encourage President Trump to visit our troops abroad," Soto said. "It's absolutely critical for him to get true insight into our mission there, and also it just becomes a morale boost for our troops to see their Commander-In-Chief. Conference calls from Mar-a-Lago are not enough."
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