WASHINGTON - Just back from a nine-day trip to the world's trouble spots, Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., said Tuesday that despite progress, plans to start reducing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan next summer are probably unrealistic.
"It will still be a protracted fight, much more protracted than the American people want," Baird said of Afghanistan.
The congressman, who has served 12 years in Congress but is not seeking re-election, visited Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan and the Gaza Strip.
Baird also said that the situation in Iraq remains fragile and that even though the U.S. combat role there has ended it would be a mistake to pull out entirely.
Baird, who met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, said the security in Iraq had improved and the number of terrorists attack is down but still lethal. Fifteen U.S. soldiers have died this year in Iraq, compared with roughly 15 a week in earlier in the war, Baird said.
"The security situation is better, but we need to let them know we will not abandon them," he said of the Iraqi people. "They are not yet ready to stand alone."
Though a lame duck, Baird said the trip was worthwhile because he would be reporting back to his colleagues and the administration about what he saw. He also said he was able to reinforce with the national and local leaders of those countries the U.S. commitment to helping solve their problems.
"We still have important decisions to make on these places," Baird said, adding that Congress still has to approve spending bills to fund the U.S. efforts in that region.
Baird, who angered his Democratic colleagues when he supported the Bush administration's surge of additional U.S. combat troops into Iraq, said efforts to form a national government in Iraq is making progress. The formation of a coalition government is considered essential if Iraq is to avoid slipping into civil war after U.S. forces leave.
In Afghanistan, Baird said U.S. forces are starting to make progress against the Taliban, U.S. civilian organizations are "way out in harm's way" as they work with local leaders on agriculture, energy and transportation issues, and U.S. Special Operations Forces are actually living with villagers in remote areas to fight off insurgents.
But, Baird said, the entire Afghan government, from top to bottom, is permeated with corruption, and President Hamid Karzai needs to state emphatically he's committed to stomping it out.
The congressman said the Obama administration's July 2011 date to start withdrawing U.S. forces was a "soft" and "symbolic" date that may not be met.
"All I can do is tell the truth," Baird said.
While in the Gaza Strip, Baird said he did not meet with Hamas officials, but he did meet with non-violent activists who don't receive much attention but could be one of the keys to ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
"There are many doing courageous work," he said.