|Rep. Bill Pascrell speaks with U.S. troops during his recent fact-finding trip to Afghanistan. Courtesy office of Bill Pascrell|
Surrounded by maps and wielding a laser pointer to illustrate the complicated geography of Afghanistan, its volatile neighbors, and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8) held a press conference in his Paterson office last Friday on his recent fact-finding visit to the region and the American northern Africa command in Italy. He discussed the budding revolutions in the Arab countries and their causes and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and suggested ways to hasten the departure of American troops from Afghanistan and bring peace to the regions in turmoil.
He also strongly condemned the murders of members of the Fogel family in Itamar last month. “This family,” he said, “their throats were slashed…. There is nothing in the Koran that justifies such a barbarous act. The trouble comes from those – the true infidels – who pull lines out of context from the Koran.”
Pascrell said the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and other North African and Gulf countries have nothing to do with Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and that Islamic extremists, notably from al-Qaida, were not involved in most, except perhaps Yemen. Al- Qaida today, he said, is active in the Yemen peninsula and in Pakistan.
Asked how he responds to those who hold President Obama’s policies responsible for the Fogel murders and renewed long-range rocket attacks by Hamas, Pascrell said, “This administration believes in two states. To arrive at two states, we can’t impose anything on either party. No matter who you are, there is no doubt that peace is better than war, so we try to show fairness without angering people too much. The Orthodox Jews complain; yes, it’s a contentious issue, but I love both peoples. I grew up here in Paterson as an Italian among both groups. Before I depart for the elephant burial grounds, I want to see peace. That whole region could be a natural breadbasket for the world, and there is much to do to make that happen, but the less ‘us,’ the better.”
Pascrell acknowledged that the peace process is not easy, but he feels that he must be doing something right. “On my last trip to Israel,” he said, “I was picketed by Jews and Muslims. I am frank with my Jewish and Muslim friends. And while some people don’t believe in persistence, I am a strong believer in it.”
The congressman mostly focused on the war in Afghanistan and said that he was optimistic for the first time in four years to see that it might be possible to pull out of that region. Along with four other Congress members led by minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), he met with President Hamid Karzai – whom he described as hospitable and direct, even blunt – and with members of the parliament. It was, said Pascrell, “a most positive meeting.” He also said that “we have made mistakes, and need to understand how the culture works. Whether we like it or not, Karzai does have to negotiate with the Taliban.”
Of much concern to the congressman are arms entering Afghanistan’s northeast corner from China and from borders with Iran and Pakistan. Describing the treacherous terrain, he said the United States was using unmanned drones and flying into sovereign territory to protect its own people, though he regrets any collateral damage.
A former teacher, Pascrell said he was gratified to learn that for the first time, there are six million children in Afghan schools. “There’s a 90 percent illiteracy rate in Afghanistan, and you cannot run a country or build an economy if you can’t read and write. People under fire can’t read a map. They are certainly behind the times, yet only the Afghans can solve their problems. We can help,” he said, “with educational and agricultural programs.”
Another important issue broached in his meetings was women’s rights in the Mideast. He said, “The men will have to understand that there will be no peace without the women.” (Research about developing countries has shown that women are primarily responsible for creating the basis of a local economy and the education of their children.)
Though he doesn’t see a problem withdrawing troops by July in Afghanistan, in keeping with President Obama’s timetable, he does feel we cannot “cut and run,” and will have to provide humanitarian assistance and continued military assistance in the hunt for bin Laden. “We have to reassure the Taliban that we don’t want to be there forever, and ultimately we can only win this if we win their hearts and minds.”
He said the Italians, who have generally been snubbed by other NATO members and the Americans, were doing a terrific job in training the Afghan police and army. “The Italians have been at our side throughout all these conflicts, and we have basically ignored them. We certainly should have gone to them before we decided what we would do in Libya, and we didn’t do that. They, perhaps more than any other country, know Gaddafi and how he operates.”
On the no-fly zone in Libya, Pascrell said he agrees with current policy, but that it should have started earlier. He believes that the United States will exit in approximately three weeks, and noted that this is not the first time America has acted to protect Muslims. Of the air war over Serbia in 1999 that ended the genocide in the Balkans, “It was the right thing to do,” he said.