9-11 remembered after trip to Afghanistan

Congressman John Shimkus Sep. 16, 2007, 7:45am

"Have You Forgotten?" is a song performed by Darryl Worley that recalls the events of September 11. It is played at patriotic events and around this time of year. I, like many people, remember exactly what I was doing.

As I left the Pentagon that morning, I had no idea that an airplane was nearing the same building. From that moment forward many people agree that our lives would never be the same.

I was able to visit Afghanistan recently as part of my duties as a U.S. delegate to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

NATO stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This treaty was established to collectively defend the free world nations in Western Europe and North America. After the attack on September 11, NATO declared that this was an attack against all of NATO and pledged to respond accordingly.

NATO agreed to a mission known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF's mission is to assist the democratically-elected Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. To accomplish this mission ISAF closes in on the insurgents with units throughout Afghanistan and conducts missions to secure, reconstruct, and develop their assigned areas.

NATO uses Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) to accomplish this mission. U.S. soldiers compose less than half of the total ISAF force.

Joining me on my trip to Afghanistan were fellow parliamentarians from Portugal, Canada, United Kingdom, Lithuania, and Estonia. A sister organization to NATO is the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO-PA). The NATO-PA provides a venue for the legislative bodies of the NATO countries to observe and have input into the NATO decision making process. Our goal was to evaluate the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

ISAF showed us the best first. We traveled by helicopter to Panjshir Province. Once landing in the valley, we boarded vehicles without body armor to make three stops.

We stopped at a micro hydroelectric development, the provincial governor's office, and the gravesite of the famous mujahideen warrior, Ahmad Shah Massoud. This was the only time we would not wear body armor in any vehicle movement.

Panjshir is exactly where we hope the rest of the provinces will be in time. They have leveraged international reconstruction dollars to build a road and a radio station with a tower. The micro hydro plant is also an international effort to aid in providing electricity.

Private dollars have now come in to provide cellular communications and a television station. Recently the police forces in Panjshir conducted a sting and arrested two insurgent operatives. There is no poppy production in this province.

Next we visited the Main Operating Base (MOB) in Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province. This MOB is run by 700 Canadian soldiers in the heart of one of the most challenging provinces. Here the Canadians have conducted major military operations.

Most recently, they conducted a mission to clear the communities of Gereshk, Samand Cay, and Choglak of insurgents. This security environment has caused the civilian run PRT to move slower than in some other provinces. Some military gains were given up due to the lack of soldiers.

Reconstruction and trust have begun to show in the stabilization of a market, the building of a new school (on the grounds of the old Taliban market), and roadwork.

Returning to Qandahar for the night, the group experienced an unsuccessful insurgent attack. Since the insurgents can not win on the battlefield, they conduct inexpensive but mainly ineffective attacks. This attack was a 107mm artillery round shot from the ground in the hope of hitting something. The round fell short of the base. This tactic is defined as shoot and scoot.

The next day we met with the airfield commander. Qandahar is a NATO airbase. The airfield is planning an expansion and will then be able to house the six Mirage jets presently stationed in Dushanbe. This will save on response time and increase aerial coverage ability.

Although NATO governments are in this fight, sometimes these same governments' response and full support of the mission can be questioned. All warriors ask is the full support of the politicians who send them.

Upon returning to Kabul, I joined an informal discussion with the ISAF commander. The current commander is General Dan McNeill of the United States.

Accepting my bias, I believe he is a straight talking Army Infantry Officer. He said, "We can win this thing."

He said our NATO troops are doing great. In response to questions, he admitted that he could use more troops and definitely more helicopters. He also believes it is critical to sustain the international commitment to 2011 and maybe as far as 2015.

The five meetings held with national Afghanistan government leaders were very informational. It is important to remember that they had no functioning national government for 30 years. An opposition party is forming in response to the strong presidency of President Karzai.

There were a few Taliban sympathizers who were not afraid to speak up in one of the meetings.

I asked the Speaker of the Lower House, the Deputy President of the Upper House, the Minister of the Interior, and a provincial governor this same question.

If you had a chance to speak to my constituents what would you say to them?

They all responded similarly. Tell the American people "thanks." We know that they have made a great sacrifice. Tell them we need to stay the course, and we want to be in a position to help the American people in the future.

On September 11 we paused to remember the sixth anniversary of the worst attack on our soil by a foreign enemy. The attack was planned, supported, and executed from the failed state of Afghanistan and particularly the Qandahar region.

Today, Qandahar has a NATO airfield commanded by a Canadian and a Canadian PRT. NATO is working hard along with the U.S. Commanded Operation Enduring Freedom to ensure Afghanistan will not return to a failed state in the future.

Today Afghanistan has a democratically-elected government which supports the rule of law, respects the rights of women, and is an ally in the war on terror.

The international community is moving in the right direction. We must not give in to defeatism, discouragement, and despair. We can win the war on terror, and we must.

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