“The more you talk to people, the more you read, the deeper you go into the issue, the less you realize you know,” U.S. Rep. John Larson said Sunday at a public forum on Afghanistan.
Larson told about 60 of his constituents gathered at a Wethersfield community center that his two trips to the region—the most recent of which was in February—doesn’t make him an expert on the subject.
In fact, he said the more he reads about Afghanistan, the more his position evolves, and the less he seems to know.
Larson’s question and answer session came Sunday afternoon only a few hours after the White House signaled on “Face the Nation” that President Barack Obama would postpone any decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan until the disputed election there had been settled.
The question that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said still needed to be answered was not how many troops you send, “but do you have a credible Afghan partner for this process that can provide the security and the type of services that the Afghan people need?”
According to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the mission of an additional 40,000 troops would be to clear and hold specific areas, “but it’s not clear that we can hold,” Larson said Sunday. “And it’s not clear that even after several years of being there that we would be able to hold.”
“Most of the men and women I’ve encountered say five-minutes after we’re gone they will revert back to the same tendencies they’ve had historically,” Larson said. “What may seem intellectually coherent, in terms of a policy that you and I could read, and even though I’ve been there, it’s a mistake for members of Congress, for individuals to claim they’re experts in the area.”
Larson, who represents a mostly Democratic district in favor of leaving Afghanistan, sounds more like the history teacher he used to be and less like the politician he is when he addresses the issue of Afghanistan and discusses differences between the various tribes there.
The mere presence of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban, Larson said.
In order to counter any resurgence of the Taliban or other groups inspired to take up arms, Larson said he voted to send more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan this past Spring to help with a possible increase in violence and to ensure a smooth election.
However, that election between the current President Hamid Karzai and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, now is being disputed and a runoff is likely. Larson doubted a new election could be held before the winter. He said the mountainous terrain will make it impossible for Afghans to get to the polls before Spring, which gives the Obama administration a long time to ponder its strategy.
“If the Afghan government is corrupt then how do we proceed forward?” Larson asked.
He said he was happy to hear Emanuel say that until there’s a government that the U.S. can work with, then “we have to be very careful about the policies we’re going to put in place.”
“I believe that the main policy and objective of the United States should be to leave an Afghan government that is capable of surviving the United States’ withdrawal,” Larson said. And as far as the U.S. troops are concerned, “We owe it to them to bring hard-nosed realism to whatever it is we ask them to do.”
Most of those in attendance Sunday said they would like the U.S. troops to come home.
In order for that to happen the U.S. has to come up with an exit strategy, Larson said.
“I believe we are capable of coming up with an exit strategy where we can draw down military support and increase aide. But the only way we can do that is to get these guys in the area convinced they have to take part in this,” he said, referring to neighboring nations like Tajikstan, Uzbekistan, and others.
Flo Woodiel of West Hartford said she thinks the U.S. can hold down the violence with 10,000 to 20,000 troops, instead of the 68,000 troops already there.
“I think we’re trying to do too much. I think we really need to scale down what our objectives are,” Woodiel said. Her comments drew a smattering of applause.
The United States’ objective should be to get an exit strategy that doesn’t include an increased military presence in Afghanistan, Larson said, adding that a “smaller footprint” for the U.S. military in Afghanistan may be beneficial.
“I don’t think it necessarily calls for more troops,” but Larson said he would keep an open mind about it.
Larson opened and closed the more than two hour forum by explaining that he knows these types of foreign policy issues don’t mean a lot to the crowd at Auggie and Ray’s, an East Hartford lunch spot near Pratt & Whitney.
He said most of his constituents are just wondering when they’ll be able to get a job or what happens if they join the ranks of the unemployed.