The U.S. military is making headway in its 11-year war in Afghanistan and should be ready to withdraw its troops on schedule by 2014, Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul said Thursday after returning from a whirlwind 36-hour trip to the country.
"A year ago, 50 percent of the country was still under Taliban control; now it's down to about 25 percent," said Hochul, D-Amherst. "That's progress. That's good progress."
Hochul based her assessment on the comments of U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan, who told her that they are pleased with the progress they've made in training the Afghan military to keep the peace once the U.S. leaves.
Still, U.S. forces face a huge challenge in dealing with Pakistan, Hochul said. That neighboring country continues to provide safe haven to Taliban fighters, who then return to Afghanistan to continue their war effort.
"If they didn't have safe haven in Pakistan, we could handle the Taliban," said Hochul, who reiterated her longtime criticism of U.S. aid to Pakistan in light of its hands-off treatment of the Taliban.
"The loose end will always be Pakistan," she added. "It is unconscionable to me that we are giving federal taxpayer dollars to support a country that puts our country in harm's way."
Local Afghan police forces also remain a huge concern, she said. In a country with a 5 percent literacy rate and a historic distrust of local police, building competent local police forces remains a challenge.
"The local police situation remains very chaotic," Hochul said. "It's a huge concern to people there and to all of us."
Hochul's trip, with colleagues of both parties from the House Armed Services Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, took her to the Afghan capital of Kabul and more-war-torn places such as Kandahar and Helmand province, along with some more-rural areas.
In addition to meeting with U.S. military leaders, Hochul and her colleagues also spent time with the troops, who shared with her two main concerns.
For one thing, many of the troops have done multiple deployments to war zones and worry about post-traumatic stress disorder.
"This is my third tour of duty," one soldier told her. "There's no way you're not going to be affected by this."
That being the case, Hochul said the U.S. government must do all it can to treat troops who come home with PTSD.
In addition, she recounted, troops said they were concerned that they would return from war to face bleak job prospects back home.
Hochul said she is proud of the job the troops are doing and pleased to hear the generals' assessment that the U.S. will be able to withdraw its war-fighting forces by 2014.
While the U.S. will continue to provide support to Afghanistan beyond that withdrawal date, Hochul said it's clear that the central part of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is already done.
"Our troops deserve tremendous credit, as do the generals on the ground, for accomplishing what they've done so far," Hochul said. "But our major objective was accomplished over a year ago, and that was the obliteration of Osama bin Laden."