Congressman Jo Bonner discusses Afghanistan

Around this time in 1982, an unassuming Camden native named Jo Bonner graduated from The University of Alabama with an eye on getting into politics.  The field has suited him well.

Bonner now represents Mobile and other areas of southwestern Alabama in the United States Congress, where he serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.  His duties there occasionally take him far from Mobile, to places like Afghanistan, where American troops are currently involved in an expansive counterinsurgency operation.

Bonner’s last trip there was in late March, something along the lines of what we would call an “Alternative Spring Break.” The congressman arrived four months after President Obama announced he was deploying over 30,000 additional troops to the fight.

Reflecting on his visit, Bonner said, “It has always been a central question mark in my mind in terms of whether Afghanistan could ever be successful, considering the lack of stability in the government. At the time of my visit, the (Afghan) president did not have half of his cabinet confirmed.”

Speaking of that president, Hamid Karzai, Bonner says his conduct has been unhelpful. “One day he is our friend, the next day he is enabling the enemy,” Bonner said. He added that he was disturbed when Karzai recently entertained joining the Taliban as our troops are trying to help his government fight Taliban insurgents.

The Taliban is the political organization that controlled Afghanistan’s government in 2001 and gave shelter to the al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for September 11. While U.S. forces teamed with Afghan rebels to run the Taliban out of power shortly thereafter, Taliban fighters have since mounted a violent return.

In response, President Obama decided to send the additional troops and the total number of U.S. soldiers on the ground will top out at just over 100,000 sometime this summer. Their mission is to help support Karzai’s new government and leave behind a stable, democratic political system.

“While I do not want to take away from the heroic work U.S. soldiers and military personnel are doing, I didn’t talk privately to anyone who didn’t tell me they have a very tall order,” Bonner said.

To highlight the challenge, Bonner rattled off a list of disturbing facts.  In a country the size of Texas, there is only one paved road, 85 percent of the people are illiterate, and the only crop with any value on the open market is opium. Immense distrust lingers between the country’s many tribes, most of which speak different languages. To make matters worse, Afghanistan shares one border with the mischievous Iran and another with the unstable Pakistan.

Bonner says a more specific idea of what our soldiers are working for is needed. Comparing Afghanistan to Iraq, Bonner said Iraq was always going to be an easier place to help citizens establish a democratic government and rebuild. “Iraq wasn’t Alabama, but it was a much more developed, unified country than Afghanistan. If I had to make a list of countries where I believed a democratic spirit could really take hold, Afghanistan would be at the bottom of almost any list,” Bonner continued.

The congressman specifically described a recent offensive in Helmand province, in which U.S. forces encountered setbacks. “It’s almost like every time you take one step forward, you take three back.”

He said military officials seem determined to overcome these challenges by using every minute they have to make the most of their resources. In contrast, the State Department officials at the U.S. Embassy presented Bonner and his fellow members of Congress with five- and 10-year plans. “I do not know if the American people are going to support this kind of operation for that long,” he cautioned.

Bonner did have at least one piece of cheerful news to report. He said the morale of U.S. forces was much more upbeat than it was on his one previous trip in February 2008. He attributed that to General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander President Obama selected to take charge of the fight last spring.

“McChrystal is an impressive man. He is very disciplined and very focused. He definitely has the presence of a true commander and leader with few equals,” Bonner complimented. He added that McChrystal and his men give him confidence.

“We just need to know what the administration is trying to achieve. Keeping the Taliban out is a good objective,” Bonner said. “We must simply make sure that what we are doing is worth American blood and treasure.”

The knowledge Bonner has gained, combined with his pragmatism in confronting the conflict, will surely set him out among his peers in Congress when they decide whether to fund this complicated mission. The information he learned from visiting Afghanistan, however, was not the only worthwhile aspect of his trip.

One of the best experiences for Bonner was getting to visit the service men and women from Alabama. “I took over a bunch of Alabama and Auburn football T-shirts and gave them out to the Alabama soldiers,” he announced. Then, he proudly added, “The Alabama national championship shirts were much more popular.”

Tray Smith is the opinions editor of the Crimson White.