March 02, 2011

Manchin questions U.S. role in Afghanistan | Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., fresh from a nine-day fact-finding trip to Afghanistan and the Middle East, said he has lingering questions about our mission abroad.

"Is our job truly nation building or should we get back to playing a support role in fighting the war on terror?" Manchin said during a conference call with reporters from his office in Washington on Wednesday.

"Afghanistan is now the longest war in our nation's history. We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars. We probably have already surpassed $2 trillion since we began."

Manchin said he was struck by the "corruption that goes on within Afghanistan and other countries. They also have a very high illiteracy rate. There is no structure for their economies."

During the tour, Manchin and other senators -- Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Bob Corker, R-Tenn.; and Chris Coons, D-Del. -- visited Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Israel and Germany.

"Everyone should be extremely proud of our [troops], the skill levels they have and the jobs they are doing for us. But I am thinking their skills could be put to other uses in the United States.

"I will do everything I can to see that our troops are protected. But I do have questions concerning their mission," Manchin said, adding that he plans to make more detailed statements about his thoughts within a couple of weeks, after talking to people in the Pentagon and State Department.

During their trip, the senators spoke to several national leaders, including: Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Jordan's King Abdullah, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Manchin said he thought Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was "very eloquent and very accurate" in the speech he delivered at West Point on Friday.

Gates said, "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it."

Manchin said, "I was in Iraq and Afghanistan four years ago, in 2006. I would like to have seen a lot of changes. But I haven't seen them....

"Things haven't changed there for 1,000 years," Manchin said. "After 10 years, have we achieved any improvements in literacy and in job training so they can defend themselves? If it hasn't occurred in 10 years, when will it happen?

"How do we play a support role? How do we get a government into a position to take care of themselves?" Manchin asked. "I am not sure we have the full commitment in those countries [to fight terrorism]. The amount of money and the human toll it is taking should be evaluated."

Today, Manchin said, "there is not one mile of railroad in Afghanistan. They are making some efforts to put some roads and infrastructure in one of the most poverty stricken countries I have ever been in.

"They have beautiful little kids and families. But 80 percent of the people cannot read or write. Most of the police force cannot read or write. It is a challenge.  We have to re-evaluate our position there."

Manchin noted the U.S. is spending $120 billion this year in Afghanistan and is about to make some very severe budget cuts here at home.

"When you look at all the financial challenges we have as a nation, are we really moving down the right path? How much more sacrifice from the United States will be needed?"

With growing unrest in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other countries, Manchin added, our country must develop a stronger energy policy to become independent of foreign oil.

"We need to convert coal to liquids, use our natural gas and develop wind, solar, hydro and nuclear power. We need to be independent of foreign oil," he said.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Manchin formally announced he and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, will cosponsor legislation encouraging Congress and the states to ratify a Constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.

"Families balance their budgets and so do states," Manchin stated. "After years of explosive growth and skyrocketing debt, the federal government must also start living within its means. Without a balanced budget amendment, the federal government just spends more than we have, and I believe this step is necessary to rein in our out-of-control spending."

By:  Paul J. Nyden