headquarters, Senator Thune spoke with RFE/RL about security and
development in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: The "surge" in Iraq worked, it seems, but the situation in Afghanistan is not where everybody would be happy about. Do you think a "surge" will work also for Afghanistan, and would you support that?
Senator John Thune: We are very concerned with the situation in Afghanistan and, obviously, our commanders are constantly reviewing that situation, working with our NATO allies on the mission there to maintain security. If you don't have security, it's very hard for the government to function, it's very hard for people living in fear all the time for them to conduct any sort of a normal life.
We believe at this point that it may be necessary to take a different approach there. It clearly worked in Iraq. The new strategy in Iraq, at least so far from a military standpoint, it has been very successful. I am willing to take a look at perhaps redefining the nature of our involvement there, to the degree that it would help achieve a greater level of security, and I think, again, what I rely on as a member of [the Senate's] Armed Services Committee predominantly is advice and counsel we get from our military leadership, and our commanders, as I said, are constantly reviewing that along with our NATO allies, the president, the Defense Department have all conducted some meetings about that, but it seems to me at least particularly with what's happening on the Pakistan border that we have got to get that situation under control. I am certainly hoping to --if necessary and the recommendation would come from our military leadership -- perhaps looking into what we might do to beef up our support there.
RFE/RL: There are some sort of negotiations or efforts being made to see if those in the opposition or the insurgency who are willing to join the government and be part of the normal life of Afghan society, to bring these people back to normal life. What is your position on that, because recently there was major fighting in Afghanistan and one Taliban commander joined the Afghan Army with 300 men, and now he has been assigned as the chief of that district for the government, and he says this is the way to negotiate and talk. Would that help, do you think? Would this be a good idea?
Thune: I think that to the degree that there are people who have been involved on the other side in Afghanistan and are willing to choose freedom, choose democracy over violence, there has to be consideration given as to how they can be included, and that is the problem that we are facing of course, in Iraq, that many of them have been in fighting among various factions and of course the Shi'a government right now has been reluctant to allow the Sunnis to become part of the government there and to included them in their military and security forces.
That is something that needs to be evaluated, obviously. You do not want to put at greater risk people who are serving day in and day out and sacrificing for freedom there by allowing the insurgent groups and some of the terrorist organizations to infiltrate, but if they're sincere about that and I think there are probably people who have been associated with terror in the past that hopefully see the light, and perhaps as a result of some of the efforts that are being made there to open up the government, to make things more transparent, there ought to be a role for them. It seems to me at least.
RFE/RL: Your involvement in the Senate's Armed Services Committee, has it given you any opportunity to go to Afghanistan or be involved?
Thune: I have been in Iraq three times and I have been to Afghanistan once, but we got an opportunity there to visit, we visited with [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai and with members of his administration, with American military there.
We visited the operating base up in the Afghan mountains, so I got the opportunity to see spectacularly beautiful country. We were up in the mountains. It was just extraordinary, and you want to see the country succeed, you want to see this democracy take hold, you want to see the people benefit -- a better life, a higher standard of living, and that requires, of course, security, which is the thing we have been trying to establish for some time and hope that we would be able to continue to provide a secure environment, but also that there would be reforms. Reforms in economy, in government.
I come from an agricultural state in the United States, so I am very interested in what can we do to develop the agricultural economy in Afghanistan. The terrain there, the climate, is very similar to where I come from in the United States and we raise a whole range of crops. It would be nice to see the Afghan economy, many of the areas that could be put into agricultural production be put into agricultural production, something other than poppies. The narcotics trade is of great concern to us as well.
RFE/RL: You seem to be a very strong supporter of wind energy and since you made that trip to Afghanistan -- I do not know if you felt that strong wind in Kabul and the west and south. It is a very hilly, windy country and a recent survey shows that in the rural areas, the top priority is having electricity and having this natural resource will take a tremendous amount of resources, investment. Windmills are maybe the best source of energy. What is your thought on that, and would you be willing to support and put these ideas into the minds of other senators and congressmen and the government in the United States?
Thune: I've been working hard to do that in our country. My state of South Dakota, according to most studies, is the windiest state in America, but we've not benefited enough from wind energy, and so I have been working hard to convince and educate my colleagues in the Congress about the importance of providing the necessary incentives for investment in wind, but it seems to me it could be a solution in Afghanistan as well.
I was struck when I was there at how few people have electricity. You need a power source, you need energy resources, and you have to look at what you have in abundance and if you've got an abundance of wind, which evidently Afghanistan does, then we've got to figure out a way to harness that and to provide the means for companies to come in and invest there, to put up the facilities, the turbines, and the transmission to deliver wind energy, electricity to the Afghan people. I think it could be a great part of the solution and I would welcome the opportunity to continue to pursue that with the folks in Afghanistan as well as the people in our country who are doing developmental work there.
RFE/RL: What would you tell the Afghan people, what is your hope for the future?
Thune: Well, I guess my message to the Afghan people would be that freedom works and democracy works, and we're very grateful for the role that Radio Free Europe plays in providing information, providing news, providing education opportunities to the Afghan people, and would encourage them to stay strong for freedom. I know it's hard at times with the many challenges they face there just in the day-to-day living, but don't give up on that hope because that is the path to a better life.