WASHINGTON — After returning from a three-day trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said Wednesday that the U.S. needs to remain engaged in that part of the world and warned that comparisons to Vietnam were too simplistic and that the region doesn't have to become a military quagmire as it has for others.
"This is ground zero for al-Qaida," Smith said. "They are still there, they are still plotting against the West. We have to deal with that threat. As much as we would like to avoid it, we can't."
Smith's comments came as the Pentagon worked on a new military strategy for Afghanistan and the White House, in the next few months, will have to decide whether to deploy additional troops. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has said the situation is "serious," but the war is still winnable. McChrystal has not said how many additional soldiers he will ask for, but such a request is considered likely.
The U.S. and NATO have more than 100,000 soldiers currently deployed, including units from Fort Lewis in Washington state. Obama has already boosted U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan by 21,000 since taking office.
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The congressman's comments also came amid growing unease among Democrats about the course of the war. But with health care dominating the political landscape, the war in Afghanistan has received only scant attention.
As a member of the House Intelligence Committee and the chairman of the House Armed Service subcommittee that oversees special operations forces, Smith has become a rising force in national security issues on Capitol Hill.
"In many cases people want to believe we can painlessly pull out of there," Smith said. "This is not Iraq. Iraq never had the Taliban."
The congressman said the Taliban provide "aid, comfort and support" to al Qaida.
But the Taliban has little support among the Afghan people, who remember their harsh treatment when they were last in power, Smith said.
"The Afghan people hate the Taliban," Smith said, but adding the Taliban "fill the vacuum" as the government of President Hamid Karzai struggles to gain control and provide security.
Smith on a trip sponsored by his Terrorism and Unconventional Threats subcommittee, said he and two other congressmen met with McChrystal and his staff, other military leaders, the U.S, ambassadors, members of the Afghani parliament, cabinet-level Pakistani officials and other diplomats.
As opposed to the Vietnam War, Smith said the Taliban are not nearly as popular with the people of Afghanistan as Ho Chi Minh was with the Vietnamese.
"He was going to win and we were on the wrong side," Smith said. "The Taliban are on the wrong side in this war."
The British, Soviets and other foreign nations sought to conquer Afghanistan to use it as an "economic outpost," Smith said. The U.S. just wants to block al-Qaida from gaining a safe haven and withdraw as soon as possible, the congressman said.
"We don't want occupy or control it," he said.
The current dispute over the presidential election in which Karzai has been accused of electoral irregularities is a set back for the U.S, said Smith. But the U.S. needs to be careful not to pick sides or pick winners, he said.
Smith declined to say whether he supported sending additional U.S. troops, explaining he wants to see what McChrystal recommended before making a decision.