July 02, 2011

Manchin: Quit Afghans, Fix problems here at home | Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., says he is increasingly concerned about spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan while problems here at home, such as a decaying infrastructure, continue to grow.

Manchin said he has learned about Afghanistan "after going over there twice, as a governor and as a senator; speaking to people in different branches of government.

"I have visited Kandahar and Helmand -- on the front line. I have been to Kabul. I have spoken to Karl Eikenberry, who was a general and is now our ambassador to Afghanistan," Manchin said during a telephone interview last week.

"After being there for 10 years, if that is not long enough, how long will it take?" he asked. "We went there for the right reasons -- to get the terrorists who attacked and killed people in our country.

"It was a war on the terrorists who did what they did. After 10 years, we are staying for the wrong reasons."

The United States began military operations in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, less than a month after the deadly Sept. 11 al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Manchin pointed out the transcript of a conference call with top Obama administration officials on June 22.

"The White House report supports our case," he said.

According to the transcript, one "senior administration official" said, "We haven't seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years. There has been clearly fighting and threats inside of Afghanistan."

Between 50 and 75 "al-Qaida types . . . are embedded" in Afghanistan, the official added, "They are focused inside Afghanistan with no indication at all that there is any effort within Afghanistan to use Afghanistan as a launching pad to carry out attacks outside of Afghan borders."

A participant in the "background conference call" also noted that today, "the al-Qaida threat does come from Pakistan."

Like many other politicians and some historians, Manchin believes transforming Afghanistan into a stable, structured society is a nearly impossible goal.

"The mind-set is different. The culture is different," Manchin said. "Iraq has a structure and an economy. I don't see any structure in Afghanistan. There has never been a structure there.

"Afghanistan has a tribal mentality. We are dealing with a country that truly has no economy, no infrastructure. And by all accounts, the government is corrupt. That is sad…

"Today, we are not there to fight terrorists, but to build a nation. We don't have enough money or time to build Afghanistan.

"But we could make an effort to rebuild America, if we start today. There is a tremendous, growing need here.

"Many water lines in America are over 80 years old. Water lines in many of our cities are more than 100 years old -- in places like Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh."

Manchin also believes helping the economies in other countries could be more effective than military actions.

"In Yemen, Tunisia or Libya, we should try to get the U.S. government to boost their economies."

Questioning military interventions, Manchin said, "When you get there, you don't leave that quickly. Look at our track record in Vietnam or Afghanistan. When we go to plant the flag, we stay for a while." Manchin said he is hesitant to put forth any specific plans for withdrawal, but he criticized President Obama's June 22 speech about Afghanistan.

"I am not putting a timetable to it -- nor am I putting a troop count -- but I am disappointed that the president said that we will not switch back to our mission of counter-terrorism and give that mission statement to the military. They will come in with the troop count it takes to counter the war on terror."

Manchin said he also worries about the costs of continuing wars.

Last month, the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University's Watson Institute released a new study, titled "Costs of War."

The study points out more than 6,000 U.S. soldiers and 2,300 U.S. private contractors have been killed in current Middle East conflicts.

The U.S. government has spent between $2.3 trillion and $2.6 trillion fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When likely future costs -- such as costs to care for wounded veterans and their families -- are included, the ultimate costs will reach between $3.7 trillion and $4.4 trillion, the Brown University study stated.

Manchin also responded to criticism by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that he is an "isolationist."

"I am not an isolationist," Manchin said, "but that is John's comeback to anybody who doesn't agree with a full assault.

"My respect for Senator McCain is immense. He has much more experience than I have, but what I do have is common sense, like West Virginians. Enough is enough.

"John is so passionate. He has earned the right to be passionate. We just disagree."

Manchin reiterated his concerns about China outbidding U.S. companies for rights to mine copper and other minerals in Afghanistan.

"China is not putting any money into trying to secure peace or to police Afghanistan. They have no troops there. They are counting on the U.S. to give them security," Manchin said. "That is more than I can take."

Manchin said he is most concerned about our own economic future.

"Whatever happens in 2012, I can live with it. What I can't live with is standing by and making no change about where the next generation goes," he said. "Our priorities should focus on what we think is good for America. How are we taking care of our own and taking care of those in need? We are getting ourselves so weak in that arena.

"I want to rebuild America. I am concerned that we haven't done that."

By:  Paul J. Nyden