Political News

Burr wraps up visit to Afghanistan, Pakistan

Posted January 17, 2011 9:17 a.m. EST
Updated January 17, 2011 4:20 p.m. EST

— U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and a contingent of lawmakers wrapped up a visit Monday to Afghanistan and Pakistan, saying they are pleased with progress in the region.

Also touring the region and meeting with military officials, political leaders and U.S. troops were Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Marco Rubio of Florida and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

The delegation met with Gen. General David Petraeus, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir of Pakistan, and Pakistani General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

"There's no question the momentum of the Taliban in the south, which has been their stronghold in Afghanistan for quite a while, has been completely reversed," McConnell told reporters in a telephone call Monday, just before leaving the country to return home.

"Now the test in the future is whether the partnership with the Afghan government can bring about the security that the country needs to kind of spring back to life," he said.

Burr said the group was able to walk through a bazaar in Helmand province without wearing body armor. A year ago, he said, they wouldn't have even ventured into the market.

"I leave Afghanistan with a very optimistic view that we have turned the corner and will this spring hand over regions to Afghan control," he said in a statement. "There will be setbacks here as there always are, but  we owe so much to the brave men and women who serve here and the many sacrifices they make on our behalf."

The group is scheduled to arrive back in Washington on Tuesday.

Events during the U.S. delegation's visit reflect continuing struggles in Afghanistan. A minivan full of civilians struck a roadside bomb on Saturday, triggering a blast that killed six of the people in the vehicle.

The Afghan government said the dead included women and children, according to a statement from the provincial governor's office. The explosion in southern Helmand province also wounded three others riding in the Toyota Townace, the provincial governor's office said in a statement.

The blast occurred in Sangin district, where international forces have been taking heavy casualties while battling a strong insurgency.

In the east, NATO said international and Afghan troops killed two insurgents and captured two suspected militants Saturday in a raid on a compound. The troops were searching for a local Taliban leader in eastern Wardak province when they were shot at Saturday in Nerkh district and returned fire.

The international military coalition did not say if the targeted Taliban leader was among those killed or captured.

McConnell said the goal of the GOP senators, many of them freshmen, was to "gain a general orientation" to the overall efforts in the Afghan and Pakistan theater.

"It's clear that 2011 is a critical year for us here in Afghanistan," McConnell said. "It's the year in which the Afghan security forces are going to have to continue to step up and play a bigger role."

McConnell said the goal is to hand over increased responsibilities to Afghan security forces by 2014, but he warned that doesn't necessarily mean NATO withdrawal.

"But there is no artificial time period for withdrawal," McConnell said. "The Taliban needs to understand that."

McConnell said he also was able to meet with troops, including some from Fort Campbell's 101st Airborne Division, where he found morale high.

McConnell said he was "deeply impressed" by the troops and said "they've done a spectacular job."

"They're making enormous sacrifices to defend our freedoms at home," he said.