Corker: Iraq strains U.S. in other areas

Thursday, December 6, 2007
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto meets U.S. Sen. Bob Corker during Corker's recent trip to Pakistan. (Submitted photo)

America's efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are plagued with manpower issues due to commitments to Iraq, Sen. Bob Corker said after returning from a eight-day tour of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Corker was part of a U.S. congressional delegation led by Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, along with Reps. David Dreier and Darrell Issa of California and Joe Wilson of South Carolina.

In a conference call with journalists on Wednesday, Corker said "there's no doubt that our efforts in Iraq are taking away from our efforts in Afghanistan."

Corker said he supports the Iraq effort "and by no means that we should not be doing the things we are doing to create security [in Iraq]"

But Corker said there's no question that the Iraq efforts are keeping the U.S. from helping Afghanistan to build up their military and police forces to keep the country secure. Generals on the ground told the delegation "we just don't have the people we need to help train up the police force on the ground," Corker said.

"What that is doing is leaving those villages not as secure as they would otherwise be and it just creates opportunities for the Taliban and others to ... create fear ... and destabilize the country," Corker said.

The delegation met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, members of that country's parliament, U.S. troops, including some from Tennessee and military and embassy leaders.

Karzai told the U.S. team that the three biggest threats to his country were U.S. and NATO forces leaving too soon, external threats from other counties to destabilize Afghanistan and the culture that exists there involving warlords and narcotics and the "whole general issue of corruption inside the county."

"I think the long term prospects in Afghanistan are very good," Corker said. "The people of Afghanistan are people who know how to be ready in defense of their country." He added the future of that country is directly tied to Pakistan.

One of the biggest successes in Afghanistan relates to education -- six years ago, just 1 million children attended school, but that number is now up to 6 million, including 1.5 million girls, "which is something that wasn't part of that culture prior to us being there."

Iran has an influence on Afghanistan through humanitarian efforts "trying to win hearts and minds," but there are also efforts to destabilize what America is doing in the region, Corker explained.

The delegation spent time with Gen. Bob Livingston at Camp Phoenix, where Corker had breakfast with troops from Tennessee. Corker also said that more agricultural efforts should be made in Afghanistan to create a more stable environment.

The southern part of Afghanistan is home to a region where an immense amount of opium poppy is grown, which is due to the lack of security, with tribal warlords forcing the population to grow the plant. Efforts should be made to persuade farmers to switch to legal crops, Corker stressed.

Corker also made the suggestion all the non-governmental entities and aid groups in Afghanistan be coordinated, saying that without organizing the humanitarian efforts, "we aren't being as efficient as we might be."

Traveling to Pakistan, Corker and the rest of the delegation were given briefings by embassy and military leaders about the current situation in that country. Corker ended up leading the delegation in Pakistan due to Bennett becoming ill the night before the visit.

The group met at the home of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is also the chairperson of the Pakistan People's Party. Their message to Bhutto was that they were glad she was back in the country and that she was to participate in the upcoming elections.

Corker told Bhutto that the U.S. wanted to do everything to ensure that there are fair and free elections in that country.

Pakistan has been under a state of emergency imposed by President Pervez Musharraf in November just days before a bench of that country's Supreme Court was to decide on a petition challenging the constitutional validity of his re-election as president one month earlier.

Corker said that Bhutto "sees the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan being tied together. She sees the Pakistan/India relations as minor compared with the issues of dealing of Afghanistan," particularly the areas which are controlled by tribal warlords.

Bhutto also expressed concern with the growth of terror in impoverished areas of her country where religious schools are used to "brainwash the young kids ... orienting them towards terror."

"We need to do everything to educate and empower to really counter that," Corker said. Bhutto also stated there was a fault line between democracy and dictatorship and also moderates and extremists. She wants outside, independent groups to oversee the election which takes place in January.

"She sees herself as the next prime minister. It's very evident, she believes she is going to win this race," Corker said. "That's not a view shared by General Musharraf." Bhutto sees the president as dealing with defense and foreign policy issues while the prime minister would deal with domestic issues, he added.

A meeting with Pakistan's interim foreign minister Iman-ul-Haq revealed that Pakistanis are offended by the impression that support in the war against terror as being "bought" with aid to that country. "They very much want to be viewed as partners with our country," Corker said.

Later that day, Corker led the delegation to meet Musharraf, who recently stepped down as head of that county's armed forces, but still holds the office of president. This was the first meeting Musharraf had with U.S. officials since that resignation.

Corker said he found Musharraf to be "very open" and the delegation passed along the message that America wants open elections in Pakistan. The topic of freeing political prisoners was also addressed, which Corker said there had been progress.

Musharraf "seemed emotional about the fact that he had just given up his uniform. He had been a member of the military all of his life," Corker related. Musharraf also seemed surprised that human rights observers had been denied admission to the country, the senator said.

Bringing Osama bin Laden to justice is still on the radar screen for Pakistan, but Corker said they are dealing with the other leaders on the ground in that country. "Their focus is on the mid-level operators that they have to deal with from day to day that are destabilizing their country."

Corker also spoke about the U.S. intelligence report released Monday which concluded that Iran had stopped its weapons program in late 2003 and shown no signs since of resuming it.

"Obviously I'm glad that it appear Iran has moved away from the making of a nuclear bomb ... but I still am suspect of anything we get from our intelligence community," he said.

The trip also included stops in India, which mostly focused on economic issues. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Armed Service Committee, Corker said the only way to find out what is happening is to be there on the ground.