Himes asks Southport community for feedback on sending more troops
In the coming weeks, U.S. Congressman Jim Himes, D-4, will have a big decision to make, and the result of his and his fellow legislators' votes will determine the fate of 30,000 military troops and, indeed, the nation.
Himes met with members of the Southport community Wednesday, as part of his series of town hall meetings throughout his district. At the beginning of the meeting at Pequot Library, it was standing-room-only, as his constituents clamored to voice their opinions and concerns about the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Facing a vote on Pres. Barack Obama's plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Himes said it wasn't his place to give his opinion, but instead to listen to the voices of his constituents to help guide his vote.
"I'm a representative -- you elect me to represent you. If you ask me to tell you how I'm going to vote before I listen to you, you short-change the democratic principle," he said.
Before the floor was opened to the public, the emotions of the crowd buzzed with the fervor of a million carbon bubbles pushing to escape from a shaken soda bottle. The slightest twist of the bottle cap emitted staccato bursts -- of applause, frustration, camaraderie, anger or felicity.
However, after a little early blood-letting, i.e. taking Himes or the country to task for this or that, the crowd seemed sated and settled in for a little more than an hour and a half of discussion about Afghanistan.
Himes recently returned from that country, and shared with the audience some of his findings. There has been a "dramatic worsening" in the last year, he said, with November being the deadliest month to date. However, positive improvements have been made in infrastructure -- building of schools and installing of power and telephone lines, for example. He also pointed out that the Taliban only has a 9 percent approval rating among the Afghani people.
What he asked his constituents to consider, before getting up to speak, was if they are in favor of keeping troops in Afghanistan, how would they pay for it? Raise taxes? Add to national debt? Cut government programs? To date, military contests have been paid for by adding to the country's debt.
"Afghanistan is authorized $68 billion in the next year. " It is more than will be spent in health care reform, assuming that goes through," Himes pointed out.
He added, right now, the United States is largely footing the bill for this war, and is the country at the forefront of the war zone.
"The fight against terrorism is the world's fight " and yet we don't get help," Himes said. "We are being asked to fight the world's fight on our dime and with our people, and it's a terrible thing."
Most of the public speakers Wednesday night didn't have an answer as to how to fund the war, but when asked to raise their hands if they were in favor of Obama's plan, a slight majority of the audience indicated that they were in favor of sending more troops. It seemed to be a hesitant approval though, and many people sought more information.
One Fairfield resident, whose son had recently been deployed, pointedly asked Himes: "If you send [my son] and the other young men over there, is there a useful purpose for them to be there? Is this in any way winnable?"
She continued, "If you are sending them over there, you had ... better be sure that they have the [equipment] they need to be safe."
Sharing that sense of desperation, a woman who did not identify herself pleaded with Himes, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, to help soldiers do their jobs better.
"We have to win this war. We can't do it and we can't send our children there if we beat ourselves before we get there," she said. For example, she said, rules of engagement for soldiers "require a lawyer before they can fire a shot."
Responding, Himes agreed that not enough has been done in terms of security.
"We have made some progress since 9/11; we have not made nearly enough," he said.
Describing the suspected Christmas Day terrorist -- whose father had warned the CIA, and who had purchased a one-way ticket in cash, carrying no luggage with him -- Himes said, "This guy had a sign on him saying, `I'm a terrorist.' It's hard to imagine someone with more red flags on him. It's hard to find bad guys. If you can't find that guy, you can't find anybody. So we have a long, long way to go."
Norwalk resident Marilyn Altman asked Himes what the downside would be of pulling out of Afghanistan now?
He responded: "The worst downside -- the nightmare situation -- a U.S. withdrawal leads to the kind of chaos we've seen over and over again in Afghanistan."
It then becomes even more of a breeding ground for terrorist training, he said. Another fear Himes has is that the Afghanis could gain enough power to topple the Pakistani government.
Many speakers agreed that stabilizing Pakistan and sealing off its borders with Afghanistan was the key to winning the war on terror.
"This is a war that is completely different from previous wars, in that it is not a war of conquest. Ironically, it's a war for stability in the region. Pakistan is the key to this engagement," said a man who identified himself as James from Stratford. His father worked for the National Security Agency, stationed in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Vietnam War. "[The Pakistanis] are the people that we need to be engaging most closely," he added.
Himes agreed, saying that right now Afghani terrorists can cross the border and hide out in Pakistan, keeping security risk high.
"The Pakistanis are playing a double game and have been playing a double game with us for a long time," Himes said.
Shekaiba Bennett, of New Canaan, was born in Afghanistan. Her family has seen, first-hand, the destruction of the country over the last 30 years.
"I am very conflicted about us sending troops to Afghanistan," she admitted. "The role of the troops in Afghanistan should be state-
building. We're there to create a country that was destroyed 30 years ago. You want to be safe in this country? The only way you can be safe is if
Afghanistan is secure. Education is the key to stopping terrorism."
Himes admitted that his vote wouldn't be easy, and that he could see both sides of the argument. One bit of confidence, he said, came from speaking with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A).
During his meeting with McChrystal, Himes asked, "Can you do the job you need to do with 30,000? He said, `Yes.'"
Had the general's answer been different, Himes said, he would have more reservations about the president's plan.
Himes asked the public another question: "What do you think the implications are of a much more chaotic Afghanistan and smaller American presence? There are trade-offs."
The answer to that question proved difficult, as none of the night's speakers provided an