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Interview: U.S. Congressmen Look To Encourage Afghanistan, Azerbaijan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) has questioned U.S. President Barack Obama's (right) announced deadline to start withdrawing U.S. troops.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) has questioned U.S. President Barack Obama's (right) announced deadline to start withdrawing U.S. troops.
On their way to visit Baku and Kabul as part of a congressional delegation, U.S. Representatives Bill Shuster (Republican-Pennsylvania) and Christopher Murphy (Democrat-Connecticut) talked to RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel about Washington's goals in Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.

RFE/RL: In a "Washington Post"-ABC News survey released on April 25, 49 percent of respondents said they disapprove of President Barack Obama's management of the war and 44 percent voiced approval. Overall, the figures have essentially flipped since January, the last time the poll asked the question. What is happening with Americans' support of the Afghan war effort?

Representative Christopher Murphy:
I think the president was very clear when he came into office, that we need to focus our military efforts in Afghanistan, begin to draw down our forces in Iraq and, for me personally, that was the right transition and one long overdue.

That being said, we are dealing with essentially years of neglect in Afghanistan that are difficult to remedy in a short period of time, so many of us have been supportive of the president's plan to reengage for a short period of time so as to be able to effectively transition control of the country to the Afghan forces. There is war weariness in the United States, we are going on 10 years in Afghanistan, we have lost thousands of lives between the two wars.

I hope that we allow the president to move ahead with his plan for transition, but I do think that should the president come back to Congress and ask for more time, he is going to find some reluctance given the amount of money we have spent and the number of lives we have lost.

Representative Bill Shuster: Americans are tired and weary of war, so I would expect that on any given month depending on what happens in Afghanistan [for support] to sort of go up and down depending on progress or setbacks, so that I think is fairly common when you are a nation at war.

Representative Bill Shuster at RFE/RL's Prague headquarters
But I do believe that it is not just Afghanistan, it is Afghanistan and Pakistan that we have to focus on. It is an important region of the world. We saw what happened on 9/11. Al-Qaeda was able to set up a base there and plan their attacks on America and, going back 20 years, we left Afghanistan at the time the Pakistanis pleaded with us to stay because they predicted what would happen and they were right.

So, we have to stay focused and again, this is the spring, when the fighting is most intense, and the American people are going to go up and down but I think if the president comes to Congress and looks for support I think he will have bipartisan support.

RFE/RL: Afghan President Hamid Karzai told a visiting U.S. congressional delegation in August last year that Obama's July 2011 deadline for the start of a troop pullout has given insurgents a "morale boost." Do you agree?

I am someone who believes that we should begin a drawdown of our forces in Afghanistan but I think we have to have a recognition that we are going to need a long-standing presence in that country, whether it be to help the Afghans with security for their civil service, whether it is to continue training missions, or whether it is for selected counterinsurgency efforts. Regardless of when we begin drawing back the size of the American commitment, I think we have to recognize that there are going to be some long-standing needs both for civilian and military partnership.

Shuster: I believe that we should never have a date certain to give to our enemies, I think it does give our enemies, it increases their morale to know at some point we are going to be gone. But that said, even in Iraq we are starting to pull out but there is some negotiation going on as to what size force will we leave in Iraq; I think the same would occur in Afghanistan.

As Chris [Murphy] mentioned, it has to be a long-term commitment, I mean we look in Europe today, in Korea, we are still there 50 or 60 years later, and I think there will be a U.S. presence as long as the Afghanis and Iraqis want us to be there.

Afghan Conflict A Regional Issue

RFE/RL: President Karzai also said at that time that NATO and Afghan forces are faltering in their battle against terrorism. He blamed the lack of progress on civilian casualties in NATO operations and the continued existence of militant sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan. Let's look just at the Pakistan part of the criticism. Can the U.S. achieve its goals in Afghanistan within our present working relationship with Pakistan?

There is no doubt that Pakistan has and is playing a role in the insurgency, whether it is through some of their security services or simply by allowing a safe harbor for the transit across the border.

We need to be approaching our strategy in Afghanistan on a regional basis. Representative Shuster mentioned this, I think one of the failures of American policy has been to view success or failure in Afghanistan simply through the implementation of strategy within its borders and, frankly, the conversation needs to be even broader than Pakistan.

Representative Christopher Murphy at RFE/RL's Prague headquarters
We need to be looking at how India plays into this dynamic as well, we know that Pakistan is more interested in Afghanistan because of how it affects their relationship with India, and I have been pleased that President Obama, I think, understands how broadly the regional politics play into the theater in Afghanistan and I think to the extent that Karzai believes that the Americans have to take a harder line with the Pakistanis about their efforts to root out this insurgency in Waziristan and surrounding regions, he's right, we do.

Shuster: There is no doubt that Pakistan and the sanctuaries that are within Pakistan have caused great problems. The Pakistanis need to step up their efforts working with us. But I certainly understand that the Pakistanis saw us leave 20 years ago, as I think I mentioned earlier, they pleaded with us to stay, so there is some doubt in Pakistanis' minds that we are going to be there for the long haul. But, that being said, we have to send them a clear signal from the United States that we are there, we are going to be supportive of them, and they need to work with us to root out the insurgents who are living across the border.

As far as President Karzai is putting the blame on the United States, he needs to really focus on making sure that he has good governance, on rooting out the corruption that is rampant in Afghanistan. I think that is as big as a problem as insurgents across the border. The people of Afghanistan want to have a government that they can trust, that is not going to come to the table of the highest bidder. I think that is extremely important, as we have learned across Europe, across the world, having a government that you can count on, that is going to do the right thing and not take bribes.

So, President Karzai really needs to focus on that part of building his government and I think that will go a long way in consolidating the government and support of the government.

Thanking, Encouraging Azerbaijan

RFE/RL: Congressman Shuster, you are co-chairman of the U.S. Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus. Could you tell us a bit about the purpose of your visit to Baku?

First and foremost, I think it is important that we thank the Azerbaijani government, the president, for their great friendship and they have been a great ally since they broke away from the Soviet Union in the 1990s. They have been one of our staunchest allies in the world, with a neighbor to the south, Iran, and the Russians to the north, it is a very, very difficult neighborhood and yet they still turn to the United States as a friend and an ally.

Also, though, while we are over there and I talk to government officials we will hopefully have a meeting with the president and reinforce the need to make sure their democratic institutions are intact and their elections are free and fair, because at the end of the day the American people are going to judge a country, an ally of ours, based on that. We see what is happening in the Middle East now and the American people want to have friends and allies that have democratic institutions, whose government is transparent. They believe in humanitarian rights. So those are issues that we will bring up with the president but also just to let him know that America appreciates staunch allies like the Azeris.

Murphy: We are a delegation of six members [of the House of Representatives] and although Congressman Shuster has been a leader of U.S.-Azerbaijani relations, this is the first trip there for the rest of us and we believe it is important to be there, especially since it is a country that is so importantly politically positioned but often doesn't get as much attention from the United States Congress as it should.

And so, as Congressman Shuster said, this is an opportunity for a group of Republicans and Democrats to A) become advocates for the relationship back in Washington through the greater understanding that we will achieve on this trip, but also to show support for a country that doesn't always get high-level delegation visits like ours.

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