WASHINGTON — Over the weekend, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, walked through a bazaar in Garmsir, a town in Afghanistan's unstable Helmand province.
That she was able to do it was remarkable, said Murkowski, who returned this week from a whirlwind, 15,000-mile journey with three other Republican senators through 15 times zones and one war zone. The senators walked through the village with Marines, but the protection for the village was the local police force, Murkowski said.
"That was who was providing for the level of protection and security in a community that just two months before, you were not able to walk freely through the streets," Murkowski said. "So the combination of the American, the NATO forces, in conjunction with a growing Afghan army presence, is truly making a difference -- slowly, but it's making a difference."
In that area, the senators met with tribal leaders and the district governor, and got the sense that "the governor and the local tribal leaders there, that there is very much a desire, a willingness to take this fight and have them be the ones that are in charge," Murkowski said.
There is a cost for the stepped-up activity, said Murkowski: "A greater loss of life."
"We noted just yesterday that it was the worst day we have had for casualties in several months, and I think that is going to step up, unfortunately," she said. "But I do believe that as we have seen, everywhere the coalition forces have gone, we have seen improvement, and I would like to think that in this next six months, we would see that spread."
In a sign of just how unstable and fluid the situation is in Helmand province, on Tuesday, a street protest in Garmsir led to eight deaths and more than a dozen wounded. It came after a raid over the weekend in a neighboring village, where the Taliban are accused of stirring up allegations that U.S. troops desecrated the Quran and abused women. The U.S. denied the allegations but pledged to investigate.
Seeing firsthand the U.S. effort in the region put Murkowski in an unusual posture: largely agreeing with the Obama administration's approach to the troop buildup in Afghanistan.
"Republicans have recognized for some time that we needed to add new troops," Murkowski said, but she also emphasized that they thought the buildup in force needed to have come more quickly.
"Think about the timelines we're up against ... every day is precious," she said. "If we knew we were going to do this, why didn't we make that announcement and start to move folks in sooner?"
She and other Republicans continue to have reservations about announcing a July 2011 drawdown date up front. That, Murkowski said, has led to what she and others called a "trust deficit" on the part of leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They've never seen an occupier finish the job, Murkowski said, and aren't sure the U.S. will either. The Taliban "is using that as a tool," she said.
"It infiltrates so much of the process," she said. "As the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police are trying to build their ranks, if you are a father who wants to encourage a son to go off and be part of a police force, but if you're not sure this police force is going to continue or have that backing, you might think, 'we want to go with the side that's going to win.'
"If the mind-set of the people of Afghanistan is 'we don't know how long the coalition forces are going to stick it out here, they may be cutting and running. Maybe our best bet is to stay with the Taliban, stay with the bad guys.' "
Others on the five-day trip included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as well as Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del. Murkowski and the others spent time with military leaders, including the head of the Pakistani military, the country's prime minister, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. They also visited two forward operating bases in the country and a police training center in Kabul, Murkowski said.