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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Rep. Case gets close look at Afghanistan

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

U.S. Rep. Ed Case wound up a short trip to Afghanistan yesterday convinced that the United States is making significant military progress against Taliban and al-Qaida forces but that it still must bring about agricultural reform to steer the country away from the opium trade.

During his three-day trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i, met with solders of the 25th Infantry Division (Light).

U.S. Army

Case, D-Hawai'i, speaking to reporters from Islamabad in Pakistan, said Afghanistan is the largest producer of poppies and opium in the world, and 70 percent of the nation's economy relies on poppy production.

"It is not yet a narco-state as it could be if we don't do the right things, but it certainly could turn in that direction," Case said.

Case and U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., went on a three-day trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan to see firsthand the job being done by coalition forces and to better gauge what still needs to be done.

On Monday, Case met in Kabul with the U.S. Embassy staff and with the British ambassador and visited with troops at Camp Phoenix. Yesterday, he flew by Black Hawk helicopter from Kandahar to a U.S. fire base outside Qalat in Zabul province.

Approximately 5,800 Schofield Barracks soldiers have been in Afghanistan for about nine months. The soldiers are expected to begin heading home in mid-March, Case said.

About 1,000 Hawai'i Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, also recently deployed to the country.

"The military effort in Afghanistan, I think, by any measure, is going well," Case said.

Taliban and al-Qaida forces have been forced into remote corners of the country "and I think it's clear to me from what I saw and heard in Afghanistan that we are in fact succeeding in engendering the trust and the hope and the belief of the people ... that we are there to help them," Case said.

The United States has invested heavily in Afghanistan, he said, from losses of life to the $60 billion spent there in military and humanitarian aid. "And I don't think anybody can say that the end of our involvement is close at hand," Case said.

There is no question that replacing poppy production with other agriculture is going to be a long, difficult and expensive process, according to Case. But it's unavoidable, to prevent a backslide to conditions that gave rise to the Taliban and drug-financed terrorism, he said.

Case said he "totally supports" the U.S. plan to spend more than $700 million for counternarcotics activities in 2005. That compares with about $123 million spent by the Pentagon and State Department in 2004.

He also said he doesn't have the same level of concern some in the Pentagon have about greater U.S. military involvement in battling the drug trade — which opponents say might turn the people against U.S. forces.

Pentagon guidance allows troops to destroy drugs they come across during combat operations, but troops are nevertheless likely to be more involved in counternarcotics efforts, the Washington Post reported.

"I don't have the same objections as some members of the Department of Defense to the utilization of our military in limited and appropriate situations to take on tasks that are perhaps not quite traditional military," Case said.

But he added that the military has its hand full right now with its "first and foremost goal — which is to secure Afghanistan."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.