WASHINGTON — Since he last visited Afghanistan, Rep. Rick Larsen said, the lights are on in Kabul 24/7, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has opened a chapter in the Afghan capital, and the market there is so jammed with traffic that he and the three other congressmen he was with couldn't get in.
"I know it's only anecdotal, but it is so different than two years ago," the Washington state Democrat said.
Larsen, who returned over the weekend from a two-day trip to Afghanistan, said there's progress but that more needs to be done. In an interview Monday, Larsen said one of the most positive developments is the "surge" of U.S. civilian aid workers who are quietly working to put the war-torn country back together.
"That's the story that isn't being told," the congressman said. "I know people in my district are frustrated, but if we had done this in 2002 instead of planning to invade Iraq, we would be further along."
The number of civilian workers has more than doubled in the past year or so, and more than 1,600 non-government organizations — NGOs — have registered with the Afghan economic ministry. Larsen said many of them are working in rural areas with tribal elders on everything from economic development to establishing local governing bodies.
Though he is locked in a tight re-election battle with Republican John Koster, Larsen said it was important to go because there were growing doubts, especially in Bellingham, about U.S policy in Afghanistan.
"It was only two days, but it provided an important snapshot," said Larsen, a member of the House Armed Service Committee.
While in Afghanistan, Larsen said he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Gen. David Patreus, the top U.S. military commander in the country, and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador.
Not all of his time was spent in Kabul. Larsen said the congressional group traveled to Kandahar Province and visited a combat outpost. The delegation was led by Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who was still traveling Monday.
Larsen said Karzai needs to make clear that he won't tolerate corruption in his government. He also said Karzai needs to stop blaming Western aid agencies that are funneling billions of dollars into the country and others for the corruption.
"I will not be President Karzai's best friend," he said. "He needs to be clear about his intolerance of corruption in the national government."
Larsen cautioned that talk of starting to seriously withdraw U.S. troops next July might be overblown, and that the U.S. combat role won't suddenly vanish.
"I don't anticipate it will be that," he said. "It will be an opportunity to start bringing some of the troops home. But it's not clear what will happen."
Larsen it's uncertain what regions of Afghanistan will be able to tolerate a smaller U.S. military footprint. But even so, he said the key was for the Afghan people to start viewing the Taliban in a different way.
"We want them to see the Taliban not as a choice, but as the enemy," Larsen said.