Taking his first overseas trip as a U.S. Senator, Pat Toomey has spent the past few days in Afghanistan and Pakistan for an up-close look at America's nearly decade-long war there. In a conference call with reporters this morning, he praised the work of U.S. soldiers but acknowledged that huge challenges remain in rebuilding Afghanistan and stabilizing its neighbor.
"We have to train the Afghan army and police force and, frankly, other governmental institutions, to help sustain the tremendous progress we've made," he said. As for Pakistan, it has "very serious economic problems, a fiscal disaster, huge internal challenges, as well as an insurgency within its own borders. That continues to be a very difficult place. We wanted to learn as much as we can and make it clear to leaders in Islamabad and Kabul that we're committed to success here."
The all-Republican delegation was led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and included Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Richard Burr (N.C.), and a quartet of freshmen: Toomey, Ron Johnson (Wisc.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.). It was Toomey's second trip to Afghanistan; he went in the early stages of the war while serving in the House. The delegation began in Islamabad on Saturday, then to Kabul on Sunday and they spent today in Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan and Kabul. They met with leaders from both countries and U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, including Gen. David Petraeus.
Toomey said he delicately pressed Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the widespread corruption within his government.
"Not surprisingly, his reaction was defensive," Toomey said. "He and his finance minister gave us long list of successes in fighting corruption and new things they have implemented. And they have a point, but the fact is there is still significant corruption in the country."
By the end of his six-year term, Toomey said he can foresee a "dramatically reduced presence in Afghanistan. I don't think that all American personnel will be out of Afghanistan in that time. I don't think this is a realistic expectation, and of course ... I do think we can manage success in Afghanistan."
As part of his discussion with Karzai, Toomey said he mentioned the significant resources the U.S. is devoting to the conflict at a time of budget crises at home -- the soaring deficit was something Toomey hammered on during the campaign and Democrats' profligacy helped propel him and many other Republicans into Congress this year. But Toomey said he doesn't think financial constraints should change how we fight the war.
"We have serious budgetary challenges that we face and we've got to get aggressive about them, but the highest priority of the federal government, its first obligation, is national security," he said.
"This is the country from which al-Qaeda launched the most devastating attack on America since World War Two. The Taliban wants to take control again, al-Qaeda wants to have a safe haven, and that's what will happen, I'm afraid, if we have a precipitous withdrawal. ... I think we have to provide the resources to get this job done, though that's not to say there aren't areas in our defense budget where we can cut."