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Islamabad Calling

Congressman assess situation in troubled regions.

Potomac’s Congressman, US Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8) was on a one-week trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan last week. Van Hollen was part of an six-member congressional delegation, led by U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) He called The Almanac from Islamabad, Pakistan last week to discuss U.S. efforts in rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The purpose of the trip is to get a close up look at how things are going on the ground,” Van Hollen said.

One of the first issues which the delegation explored was price gauging. Halliburton and a subsidiary, Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) have many of the contracts for providing services such as food to the soldiers and oil for Iraq.

“The facts show that either they or their subcontractors have engaged in price gouging,” Van Hollen said. “By all appearances they have been overcharging.”

Van Hollen had visited the region during the 1980s when he was part of a group which documented Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Kurdish people. At that time he did not have the opportunity to enter Iraq, and so could not compare conditions then to conditions now.

However, he did note that parts of the country are in need of assistance.

“There’s definitely been progress made on the reconstruction side, but they’ve got a long way to go. … Clearly the infrastructure is run down,” he said. The destruction from the war and an obvious lack of maintenance while Hussein was in power has contributed to the problems.

Currently, Iraq is at crossroads, although progress has been made.

“It remains a very dangerous situation in Iraq,” Van Hollen said. “On the security front, we’ve made progress again, but now there is a growing problem with outsiders.” He said the Iraq has become a magnet for Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorists.

Now that we are in Iraq, we have an obligation to remain there until the nation is stable, Van Hollen said. “The risks of packing up and leaving right away could lead to a potential civil war,” he said. “It’s not just a moral obligation, but making sure that Iraq does not become a haven for terrorists.”

The Iraqi people will help to determine the efficacy of the outside terrorists. “The question is whether those terrorists will have any support within the country,” Van Hollen said.

Van Hollen says that U.S. leaders in Iraq estimate that American troops will need to remain for at least two years in significant numbers. Even if a June 30 transfer of power currently planned by the president takes place, questions remain. “The big question is, who are they going to be transferring power to?” he said. “We’ve got a date that we set with no plan.”

The troops’ morale remains high, in spite of frequent attacks. “The morale overall was good,” Van Hollen said. “They were proud to do their duty. There was no griping about their mission.”

The troops he spoke with, who were from Maryland, had another reason to be happy, their tours had ended. “They were on their way home, so their spirits were up.”

His trip into Afghanistan showed him it is important that the U.S. remain there as well.

“People have to remember that the Sept. 11 attacks came out of Afghanistan,” Van Hollen said.

He said the U.S and its international allies are making progress there, and that the Afghan people have a draft constitution. “There’s been pretty good coordination in Afghanistan,” Van Hollen said. “I think there are benefits to getting the support of the international community.”

One of the problems facing the country is the opium trade. Opium poppies are the crop of choice for many in rural areas of Afghanistan.

Van Hollen said that authorities there are engaged in a three-pronged strategy to stop opium farming: Provide an alternative crop, eradicate the poppies and police the area.

Policing however becomes a problem in many areas of the country.

“In Afghanistan, they’ve got some control in the capital city [Kabul],” Van Hollen said. “The outlying areas remain sort of a no-man’s land.”

The battle against Taliban fighters and Al Qaeda continues in parts of the country, and the U.S. still has about 13,000 troops in the country, he said. “The big outstanding question is what would happen if the U.S. left.”