The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 7, 2009

Walz takes tough questions on war in Afghanistan

Town hall meeting on surge remains civil

By Robb Murray

NORTH MANKATO — When a nation goes to war, or sends soldiers to a foreign country to fight or build roads or bolster the peace efforts of the host government, there are always good intentions.

There is also a grim, fatal reality. And as the nation debates President Barack Obama’s plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Congressman Tim Walz says that grim reality haunts him at night.

“When this is carried out, we will have sons and daughters die,” he told a town hall gathering Monday evening at South Central College. “This is something I lose sleep over.”

To help him make a decision on whether or not to support the president’s plan — and to gather Minnesota ideas on the topic to bring back to Washington — Walz has been holding town hall meetings, an approach that has become common since the days of national health care debates.

“We should always be having these discussions, we should always be questioning what direction we’re going,” he said.

The crowd at South Central College wasn’t nearly as anti-Walz and anti-government as the gathering at Mankato East High School a few months ago. In that meeting Walz was met with hecklers, and the general vibe in the room seemed to be against health care reform.

Before getting to the heart of the meeting Monday — questions from the audience — Walz conducted a quick geography lesson on Afghanistan and tried to illustrate why the situation there required some type of action.

Walz displayed maps of the country — including one that showed the hundreds of independent clans operating within the country — and explained how many Afghans are loyal to clan first and country second. And many don’t recognize the political border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He said that, based on evidence he’s seen, not doing anything in Afghanistan could jeopardize the security of the United States and add to the instability of a region where several countries possess nuclear weapons.

Audience questions were all over the map, no pun intended.

Ron A. Johnson wondered why the U.S. doesn’t form an alliance with the Pashtuns, one of the largest and most powerful ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

Walz said that was a good idea, and that he believes it’s always smart to forge relationships with key groups. Doing so with them and other groups would aid in the effort to rally the entire country around the government of Hamid Karzai, who was re-elected in an election many have said was largely corrupt.

Lona Falenczykowski questioned the integrity of Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. She said he may have been among the military brass involved in the effort to cover up the reason behind the death of NFL great Pat Tillman.

Walz said he was unsure of McChrystal’s role and what McChrystal knew of the Tillman situation.

Mary Ellen Miller asked about a “civilian surge” she’s heard the president talk about. Walz said he, too, would like to know more, and said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has promised to provide more details about that (described in news reports as a steep increase in civilian non-military experts) soon.

One man said he had misgivings about sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan but said he didn’t know of any alternative solutions to the problems there. He wondered how the U.S. planned to pay for the effort and wondered whether a war surtax would be prudent. He also wondered whether the government would ever consider a draft.

Walz, a former National Guardsman, said he would not support a draft.

“As someone who has commanded troops,” Walz said, “I can tell you that, if you didn’t want to be there, I’d just as soon you not be there.”

Barbara Carson urged Walz to listen to more than just military sources — cultural anthropologists, for example — when considering whether or not to support the president’s plan.

Her thoughts were echoed by Jim Dimock, who aggressively demanded to know exactly which non-military options he’s looked into.

Walz countered by saying he’s considered several non-military ideas, including doing nothing, leaving and the secretary of state’s civilian surge plan. He’s still waiting for details on the latter. But of the former two he said both would put the lives of U.S. citizens at risk by failing to address the fact that al-Qaida terrorists are allowed to operate in Afghanistan.

Sister Gladys Schmitz of the School Sisters of Notre Dame asked Walz if he supported an honest, comprehensive investigation “of what really happened on 9/11.”

“The official story is full of holes,” she said, “everyone knows that.”

Perhaps the most intriguing idea came from a man who declined to give his name. He said he used to live in Afghanistan.

After Walz said a small number of al-Qaida terrorists — perhaps 100 — are responsible for insurgency efforts, the man offered this suggestion: “I grew up in that country,” he told Walz. “I can assure you, for $10 billion, they will find the hundred al-Qaida.”