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Larsen says U.S. force needs to be strengthened in Afghanistan

More American troops are needed in Afghanistan, but the surge strategy used in Iraq won’t work in Afghanistan, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen said after his second visit to the country.

Larsen made a Thanksgiving visit to troops in Afghanistan, and spoke with reporters about his trip after a visit to Whidbey Island last week for a meeting on the economy with local business interests.

Larsen, a 2nd District Democrat and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, made the trip to Afghanistan as part of a six-member, bipartisan delegation.

The congressman last visited Afghanistan as part of a congressional fact-finding mission in September 2007.

En route to Afghanistan, the delegation also met with Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

“He let us know that Afghanistan, in his view, would take a substantial and sustained commitment. That it is a very different situation than Iraq. Congress needs to know that and the American public needs to know that,” Larsen said.

Larsen said 20,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops are needed in Afghanistan; a combination of combat and support personnel that would be deployed to the southern part of the country where the Taliban is largely focused but also to the Pakistan border where al-Qaeda is centered.

“It would be the opposite of a surge,” Larsen said. “We’re not looking to move 20,000 to 30,000 into Afghanistan and then moving them out in 18 months.”

The biggest problem is security after U.S. forces have scrubbed an area of insurgents and the Afghanistan National Army or the National Police are asked to take over.

“Once we hand it over to the Afghanistan National Army or the Afghanistan National Police, they’re not fully capable of holding that area,” Larsen said.

But basic development, and redevelopment, of areas of Afghanistan won’t happen until Afghan forces can provide security. Larsen said the Afghan army must be enlarged and sustained, and a long-term effort launched to attack the corruption problems in the national police force.

There are limits to what a U.S. military presence can accomplish, he added.

“It is a war that won’t be won or lost by the military,” Larsen said.

The Afghan people must find a way to connect with their government, he said, in order for the country to move forward.

“It’s not something that will happen overnight,” he said, adding that he was hopeful the upcoming 2009 presidential election would help.

Help in the form of more money, more troops and other assistance is needed, as well, from NATO allies. Larsen said he was encouraged by what he heard during the tour, which included a stop in France and a meeting with the minister of defense.

“I was left with the impression that there is in fact room for a request for the next administration to our NATO allies for additional help, military help from NATO,” Larsen said.

It was Larsen’s sixth trip overseas to visit troops. The congressional visit was led by House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) and included Congressman Solomon Ortiz (D-TX), Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA), Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU) and Congressman David Loebsack (D-IA).

During the two-day visit to Afghanistan, Larsen said many troops wanted updates from home.

Some soldiers asked about the economy; a soldier from Michigan wanted to know if automakers would get a bailout from Congress, another from Georgia with a wife from Portland, Ore. asked about the economy in the Pacific Northwest. There was talk of the election, and the next president.

Larsen had a Thanksgiving lunch with a big menu. Turkey, roast beef, mashed potatoes, something that was either yams or sweet potatoes, he said, plus apple pie, pecan pie and sparkling cider.

He also said he played basketball for a little while in an empty swimming pool on a former Soviet military base.

The morale of the troops was good, Larsen said.

During the visit, there was a suicide bombing about a half-mile from the group, close enough for the delegation to hear the blast.

Larsen, who said he was not in any danger at the time, said the attack made him think about “how happy I was to have the best military in the world at my back.”

“It does underscore just how dangerous Afghanistan still is. It took place in the middle of the morning and in the middle of the street,” he said.

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