Marco Rubio: 'We Are Headed in the Right Direction' in Afghanistan

Florida's newest senator visiting war zones
By: Lane Wright | Posted: January 17, 2011 10:26 AM
Marco Rubio in Afghanistan

Sen. Marco Rubio walks with tribal leaders in Afghanistan | Photo Sen. Marco Rubio's office

In one of his first official acts as U.S. senator, Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined six other Republican senators on a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The idea is to see firsthand the effect of U.S. involvement in the region.

Rubio, with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and others, met with Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir and other senior members of the Pakistan parliament. In Afghanistan, they met with U.S. Gen. David Petraeus and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"One thing that's clear is that 2011 is going to be a critical year for Afghan security forces," Rubio said. "They're going to have to step up and play a critical role, and we are heartened by some of the early success we've seen."

Rubio called in from Afghanistan Monday morning EST to update Florida media on what he was seeing. Earlier in his trip, he watched the Afghan military perform an ambush. A company of the Afghan national army staged an ambush against another element of the Afghan army posing as the enemy.

While Rubio acknowledged progress, he said there's a long way to go before Afghans are ready to do without heavy U.S. troop support and take over their own military operations.

"Well, they're making strides in that direction. They are certainly worlds away from where they were." But, Rubio said, "there are real challenges."

Rubio says the Afghan national army is being trained by a collation of forces including British, American and Jordanian troops, each bringing their own ideas of how to build and maintain a strong military. Other challenges come from the fact that some in the Afghan army, have never driven a vehicle before.

"The first time they've ever driven a car or any kind of vehicle, [it was] a Humvee going through mine training, so there are real challenges there."

During a NATO summit in Lisbon, Karzai announced his goal to have American and international forces return the country's security forces to Afghan control by 2014.

While that is still the goal, Rubio disagrees with the idea of using troop withdrawals as benchmarks. Instead, he wants to measure it by successes in securely turning areas over to Afghan authorities. 

Rubio says the process of setting up court systems and municipal services is ongoing, but the Afghan people, from the market place to the country's top officials, are concerned that the U.S. may pull out too soon.

"It is important," Rubio emphasized. "It is important, that it's clearly understood that the U.S. is committed to seeing this thing through. Otherwise, there is a sense that the Taliban and even al-Qaida are just waiting for us to leave so they can move back in.

"People are afraid to deal with us. They're afraid to buy into a government. They're afraid to buy into a court system -- to take their disputes to a governmental entity. They're afraid to vote. They're afraid to run for office. They're afraid to take jobs in a government office or volunteer for the military because they think we're leaving in six months, or nine months or a year, and these bad guys are going to come back in and take over and punish them."

Despite the challenges, the Florida senator says he still holds on to optimism for the region.

"There is a long way to go. There's no way to overestimate how serious the challenge is," he said, "but we are headed in the right direction."

Rubio is expected to return from the region late Tuesday night.


Lane Wright can be reached at or at (561) 247 1063.

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