WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, back from his second trip to Afghanistan within 18 months, says he saw or heard nothing to change his mind that U.S. military forces should be headed out even quicker than President Obama announced back in June. Although he praised U.S. diplomats and troops, the Oregon Democrat said Afghanistan cannot sustain the buildup of military and police forces — and is failing to reduce corruption — that would hasten the end of the U.S. effort there.
"This nation-building mission is not working," he said at a luncheon last week sponsored by the Strategic Economic Development Corp. in Salem. "We need to do a lot more nation-building at home."
Merkley said he thinks the United States has largely accomplished key goals: ousting the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, killing Osama bin Laden (on May 2), and disrupting the al-Qaeda training camps instrumental in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
He said the United States should focus on counter-terrorism, not a more extensive counter-insurgency strategy that neither nation can afford.
Merkley went with Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
They spent one day in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital; one day in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, and one day in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, and in a village near the border with Pakistan.
He met with Pashtun village elders who told him that officeholders of the central government were not chosen on merit, but on their connections.
"This pervasive corruption affects every level of government," he said.
Merkley also visited Afghanistan in February 2010, a couple of months after President Obama increased U.S. troops from 68,000 to their current level of 100,000. Obama announced on June 22 that 10,000 would be drawn down by the end of this year, and 20,000 more by the end of next summer, en route to all U.S. troops out by 2014.
Merkley was one of three senators who obtained signatures from a total of 27 colleagues on a mid-June letter urging Obama to step up troop withdrawals. (Agencies)