Begich Returns From Afghanistan Trip

Photo courtesy of Senator Begich's office: Sen. Begich pins the 1/25 Combat Action Badge on Sergeant Ricardo Tucker of Fort Wainwright’s Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

Alaska Senator Mark Begich says his confidence in the possible success of the war in Afghanistan is higher after a brief, intense trip to the country.  He spoke with reporters Monday after returning.

Senator Begich spent two and a half days visiting Alaska-based troops and meeting with officials such as the U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.  He visited places including Kabul, Camp Bastion in the Helmand Province and Kandahar.  It was the Democratic Senator’s second time in Afghanistan – the first was nearly three years ago in the spring of 2009.

“Today based on what I saw and heard, it is much better.  The challenge is, we have a Taliban that is hell bent on trying to take back the government through force, and what’s clearly happening, a transition of time since I’d been there, now my 2nd trip, the Afghanis are getting fed up with the Taliban,” Begich said.

Senator Begich says he saw more leadership and initiative from Afghan troops on this visit rather than dependence on the American and international forces.  He says he still expects challenges after President Obama’s planned withdraw of combat troops in 2014.

Begich says security is the key so the Afghan people can do basic commerce, attend school and run the government, but he says it’s still a dangerous place.

“Matter of fact one of the governors we were going to see in the southwestern district was killed the day before we got there.  He was on our schedule to meet with.  He was again one of our better allies.  And what happens now is the Taliban picks out high target folks of that nature to put fear in the community.  Verses in the past they would do lots of activity,” Begich said.

Begich participated in awards ceremonies for Fairbanks-based soldiers with the 1-25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, including pinning combat action badges on Sergeant Ricardo Tucker and Sergeant Eva Haney.  The Senator says he heard from soldiers that they do have the supplies they need – but he says they’re hardly living in luxury.

“It is tough living.  When we were there first there was a snowstorm, then there was a sandstorm, then there were high wind storm, you know within a two and a half day period.  And it was unbelievable conditions, just from that environment you live in,” Begich said.

Last month eight soldiers with the Fairbanks-based Stryker Brigade were charged with crimes including involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide in the death of 19 year old Private Danny Chen.  The soldier killed himself in October, after what his family alleges was harassment and hazing by his comrades.

“That is a very sad situation that occurred and there’s no question that the military from what I heard in our brief conversations on this, because it is a criminal investigation we limit our discussions as we move through the process.  But it’s clear they’re going to prosecute at highest level ensuring that there is justice for the family.  So I feel confident that will occur,” Begich said.

Tensions in Afghanistan have flared in recent days after a video surfaced of American Marines in combat gear urinating on the bodies of three Taliban fighters.  Begich says the men, who were not Alaskans, should be dealt with harshly.  He says in his two and a half days on the ground, he didn’t witness fallout stemming from the video.

“But oddly enough, there was very little discussion.  And here’s why I think, the Afghanis from what we picked up there, knew this was not the norm.  This was a very unique situation, it was not the norm for any of their U.S. troops or allies on the ground there,” Begich said.

Begich went to Afghanistan with two other members of Congress:  Fellow Democrat Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Republican Representative Wayne Huizenga of Michigan.

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