By Walter Alarkon - 09/24/09 12:32 AM EDT
A senior House Democrat canceled a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan last month because the State Department was concerned about his security.
Rep. Mike Honda (Calif.), his communications director and an aide to Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) had plans to meet with local officials and development groups in Kabul in the aftermath of the war-torn country’s presidential election in August.
“They didn’t say, ‘Hell, no, you can’t go at all,’ but I think they were legitimate in their concerns and I think they were appropriate in their tone,” Honda said. “That made a big difference.”
Honda, who has opposed sending more troops to Afghanistan, said that the State Department made its recommendation because he and the aides would be traveling without the same security provided to official congressional delegations traveling abroad.
He said the State Department was worried about a scenario in which resources might be siphoned off to extract a lawmaker from danger.
A British soldier was killed earlier this month in the course of the rescue of a journalist for The New York Times who had been held by the Taliban.
Honda didn’t think that his skepticism of the administration’s Afghanistan strategy played a role in its recommendation that he cancel his trip. Honda said that his position on the war didn’t come up in conversations with the State Department.
The trip, organized by the media watchdog Institute for Public Accuracy, was to last five days in late August. Honda planned to travel with his spokesman, Michael Shank; the executive director of the nonprofit group, Norman Solomon; and Rick Reyes, a retired Marine corporal who testified before the Senate in April against sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
Honda said that he wanted to go to Afghanistan with the private group instead of with an official congressional delegation because he wanted a more balanced view of the country. He said that official congressional trips, known as codels, come with more protection but tend to limit what members can see.
“I wanted to be on the ground, outside the walls,” Honda said.
The State Department did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Lawmakers are trying to find as much firsthand information on Afghanistan as possible as the administration wrestles over the U.S. mission.
Military leaders are pressing for more troops, putting President Barack Obama in conflict with Democrats who do not want to send more troops to the country. Senior advisers in the White House as well as Vice President Joe Biden have reportedly urged Obama not to send more troops for now.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, warned Defense Secretary Robert Gates that without more troops, the mission “will likely result in failure,” according to a memo by McChrystal leaked to The Washington Post.
Honda said he dropped out a couple weeks before the trip after hearing from a State Department official, whom Honda described as “adamant” that he not make the trip.
The House ethics committee, which must review any trip involving a House member or aides that is sponsored by an outside group, had approved them for travel, Honda’s office said.
The Conyers aide, Michael Darner, offered to take Honda’s place on the trip, according to Honda’s office. But the aides and their bosses decided, just days before they were to depart, that they wouldn’t go because the State Department gave another “very strong recommendation” for them to stay home, according to a House aide.
Solomon, the nonprofit group’s director, went ahead with the trip. He said he didn’t encounter anything in Kabul to suggest that the congressman and the aides would have been in danger. The itinerary included meetings with officials close to the local government, including Hekmat Karzai, the cousin of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, as well as with officials from the United Nations and the World Bank and journalists.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued against sending more troops to the country after he visited Afghanistan in August on a codel.
Levin said he believed Afghanistan remained a national security issue, but that additional troops could become a propaganda tool for the Taliban. He said the U.S. should instead step up efforts to increase the size of Afghan security.
“Our support of their surge will show our commitment to the success of a mission that is clearly in our national security interest, without creating a bigger U.S. military footprint that provides propaganda fodder for the Taliban,” Levin said in a floor speech on Sept. 11.
Levin, who was part of an official codel with Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), cited his experience there when he urged the White House to opt for a “surge” of Afghan troops, not of Americans.
Honda, a Democratic National Committee vice chairman and the chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, has been among the House Democrats most vocal against any troop surge. Honda this year led a six-part series of conversations between members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus about the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Honda voted against the supplemental spending bill providing $106 billion in funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in June. Obama and most Democrats supported the increase in funding. Honda has urged Obama to spend more on development instead of military operations.
“I’m not sure that’s the best course of action in terms of expenditures,” he said.