By Jimy Valenti
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
After returning from a trip to the Middle East, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, said significant security gains have been achieved in Afghanistan, but that pervasive corruption threatens to undermine the nine-year war.
Udall, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, met with leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Their visit included meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki as well as Gen. David Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry on the nine-day tour of the region.
In Afghanistan, Udall visited a village on the outskirts of Kandahar called Malajat. The area, located in the southern part of Afghanistan, has seen some of the war’s most intense fighting. Udall met with soldiers from Fort Carson’s 1st Brigade Combat Team who drove the Taliban out of Malajat in late August.
“It was an impressive accomplishment,” Udall said. “The Soviets were never able to take this village because it had such strong importance to the Afghans.”
Udall said his most eye-opening experience was seeing corruption first hand throughout the Afghan society. He said even some U.S. dollars directed at building infrastructure have ended up in Taliban hands, thus undercutting U.S. counter insurgency strategy.
“The police are setting up road blocks in an attempt to find insurgents, but in the process of setting up those road blocks they are skimming money from anyone who goes through,” Udall said. “That undercuts the people’s faith in the local government in their ability to keep them secure.”
In a conference call with reporters last Monday, Udall said he agrees with chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. John Kerry that if Afghan President Hamid Karzai does not clean up his government it would be difficult “to look American families in the eye and say, ‘Hey that’s something worth dying for.’”
Udall also said he would support negotiations with the Taliban if some red line conditions were met. He said every civil war is concluded through political negotiations and that Afghanistan would be no different.
“I’m going to be carefully watching the reconciliation process as it develops to ensure that U.S. interests are addressed in any final reconciliation deal,” Udall said. “We’ve sacrificed too much to be undercut by the Taliban or other dangerous factions this late in the game.”
In Pakistan, Udall met with troops from Colorado working in flood relief efforts.
Udall’s message to numerous Pakistani officials, including Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, intelligence chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha, and President Asif Ali Zardari, was that the U.S. will continue to stand with the Pakistanis because peace in Pakistan is vital to peace in Afghanistan.
“It is important that Pakistan continue to tackle the insurgencies on their western border which they have done to good effect, but they need to do more work,” Udall said.
In Iraq, Udall said the key effort is to form a new government. The Senator met with leaders from key Iraqi political groups urging them to continue negotiations in the effort to create as inclusive a government as possible.
“I made it clear to Prime Minister Al-Maliki that if the political groups can’t form a government in the near future that it’s hard to ask the U.S. Congress to continue to support Iraq,” Udall said.
The Senator said security in Iraq is dramatically improved, but still fragile. He visited Ramadi, a village on the outskirts of the Anbar Province. A few years ago, al-Qaida had strong roots in Ramadi and the area saw some of the most violent fighting in Iraq. Udall said now the streets are stable and calm.
Udall said he traveled to the region with a fundamental question: “Are we there for the right reasons?” During Udall’s trip, Sen. Michael Bennet said he didn’t think the U.S. could bring peace to the region, “so I would bring our young men and women home.”
When asked if he agreed with his Democratic colleague in the Senate, Udall said he agrees with the U.S. mission in denying al-Qaida a sanctuary, rebuilding a broken country and stabilizing the border with Pakistan.
Udall also visited Kuwait, Qatar and Dubai — key U.S. allies in the region.