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Shaheen hears 'cautious optimism' in Afghanistan

Shaheen hears 'cautious optimism' in Afghanistan

Union Leader

By Dan Tuohy

May 28, 2009

MANCHESTER - The troop surge to reverse recent Taliban gains in Afghanistan is getting renewed support there, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said yesterday upon returning from the war-torn country.

Shaheen, D-N.H., said she heard "cautious optimism" from U.S. troops, allies and Afghan military leaders on President Obama's strategy.

"It really is a second opportunity to try and achieve success there," she said. "They all believe that we can be successful there, but everyone understands the challenge ahead."

The visit comes as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Taliban have seized the momentum in Afghanistan, and are gaining control over larger areas.

Shaheen, who was in the region over the Memorial Day weekend, also visited Pakistan with a five-member congressional delegation.

She sits on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and is chairman of a subcommittee with jurisdiction over North Atlantic Treaty Organization operations in Afghanistan.

"We're in this region because we were attacked by al-Qaida on Sept. 11," she said yesterday at a news conference. "This region represents the nexus of terrorists, nuclear weapons, military extremists, and it is a very dangerous place that threatens not only the region but also the United States."

The U.S. troop surge, an extra 21,000 soldiers that Obama announced in February, is responsible for an increase in Taliban clashes in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, Afghan and NATO troops killed 15 insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, The Associated Press reported.

Shaheen said the previous administration took its "eye off the ball," after first defeating the Taliban, by going into Iraq.

Sen Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., visits troops at Camp Eggers in Kabul, Afghanistan. (COURTESY)

She said there is an offensive under way in tribal areas along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, an area with no border patrol in which Taliban fighters can go back and forth almost at will.

As part of the counterinsurgency, the military strategy is to "clear, hold and build," an effort to help residents feel secure in their communities before rebuilding government structures, their economy and some of their local institutions, Shaheen said.

Other encouraging signs, she said, include Afghan military leaders cracking down on corruption in their ranks.

Last weekend, Shaheen met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. She also conferred with Brigadier Gen. John Nicholson, one of the U.S. and NATO commanders in the region, and visited troops in Kandahar and Kabul in Afghanistan.

Shaheen said she was impressed with efforts by U.S. military men and women on the ground. "Everything is intense," she said. "People were there working in heat that was about 110 degrees, in full battle gear."