One week after President Barack Obama announced plans to send 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, Santa Barbara’s congressional Representative Lois Capps is still carefully measuring her words-and her thoughts-on the subject. “There’s nothing that looks pretty, attractive, or even good,” said Capps, who has been to Afghanistan twice in the past three years. “I can’t give any ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.” Capps said she was mindful that Afghanistan has been “a graveyard” over the centuries for superpowers that became enmeshed there. Likewise, she acknowledged that rampant corruption has dangerously undermined popular support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But, she added, a continued American presence of some kind in the region is imperative to prevent the nether world between Pakistan and Afghanistan from serving as a “safe haven for terrorists.” Even while acknowledging doubts and concerns about Obama’s escalation, Capps stressed that he’d made it clear while running for office he’d focus on Afghanistan. “He got elected; he’s still in his first year, we need to give him a chance,” said Capps, a strong supporter of the new president.
Capps was less equivocal, however, when it came to the 18-month time frame Obama articulated before American troops began the withdrawal process. “He had no choice but to give them a time frame,” Capps said. “When it feels like some bottomless pit, people are justifiably reluctant to commit.” Republicans-like Elton Gallegly who represents much of inland Santa Barbara County in Congress-have been especially critical of the 18-month time frame, contending it weakens the American buildup even before it happens.
Likewise, Capps said she opposed efforts announced by liberal Democrats-like David Obey of Wisconsin-to impose a war tax to pay for the Afghanistan conflict. “You’ve got to love David [Obey] for trying, but it’s too stark,” Capps said. “We need to have some sense of how this is going to be paid for, but to impose a new tax now is not a good idea.” In previous years, Capps routinely blasted President George W. Bush for going outside the customary budget process to pay for the Iraq war. Capps cautioned that a tax hike in the current economy would be disastrous, and could jeopardize Democrats’ ambitious domestic agenda. “The first thing we need to do is get health care done,” she said. “I don’t want to do anything that distracts from that.”
Capps said she’s witnessed incremental signs of progress in Afghanistan during her two trips there. A library that was under construction during her first trip three years ago is now up and running, she said. The number of women in parliament now exceeds the 25-percent quota required by law, if just by two members. Capps expressed concern that if the United States were to pull out, millions of Afghani women would find their limited freedoms drastically curtailed and be subjected to outright violence. Women who run for elected office, she noted, face death threats and social ostracizing. One female parliamentarian told Capps that the presence of U.S. marines in her hometown-as opposed to NATO troops-gave her the sense of freedom needed to walk down the street. “I can walk to the market and I can walk my children to school. This gives us the confidence to continue,” she said. “That’s the complete opposite of what the Taliban would do.”
Even so, Capps applauded Obama for expressing openness to allowing some Taliban members to participate in a new governing coalition. “There are elements in the Taliban who are involved only because of security concerns or the buy-outs and not because they’re ideologically committed,” Capps said. By involving such individuals, she expressed tentative optimism that a more democratic Afghanistan might evolve. Likewise, she applauded Obama’s suggestion that the number of State Department employees-focused on civil infrastructure projects-be tripled.
Capps, who vigorously opposed the war in Iraq, said “millions of dollars in aid fly out the door” under the less-than-watchful eye of Karzai functionaries. Capps said she’d like more details on the reforms to which the Karzai regime will be held. It doesn’t help, she noted, that his own relatives are involved in the opium trade. “He’s never been held accountable before. Now he will,” she said. In the weeks between now and any future vote to authorize troop buildup, Capps said she’ll be looking for what performance benchmarks the Obama Administration sets. “I’ll be looking to see if schools are open and not torn down the next day, whether kids are actually attending these schools, whether roads are being built, and if people can walk down the streets,” she said. “I’m not looking for miracles. I’m just looking for signs of progress.”