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U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte met on Friday (1/14)with soldiers of the 197th Fires Brigade, New Hampshire Army National Guard, at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. Ayottes visit included a briefing from the Brigade staff and a tour of a mine resistant assault protection vehicle (MRAP). From left front, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Lestage of Manchester, Sgt. Katie Hannigan of Manchester, Pfc. Shawna Jackson of Northfield, Staff Sgt. Dawn Cookson of Hillsboro, 2nd Lt. Jason Longvale of Concord. Back from left, Sgt. 1st Class Kurt Hinxman of Londonderry, Maj. David Fink of Manchester, Sen. Ayotte of Nashua, Sgt. Sigfredo Guzman of Merrimack (behind Ayotte), Capt. Jim Pappioanou of Bow, Chief Warrant Officer 4 David Clemons of Center Barnstead, Spc. Joseph Vicinanzo of Concord, Maj. Jeff Walz of Derry, Staff Sgt. Robert McLaughlin of Penacook.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ayotte, in Afghanistan, cautions against ‘artificial timetable’ for pullout

After meeting with soldiers from New Hampshire in Afghanistan and Kuwait, the state’s newest senator says the U.S. should refrain from setting a fixed timetable for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Kelly Ayotte made the statement near the close of a fact-finding trip by Senate Republicans to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kuwait.

This year will be critical to U.S. efforts to eradicate Taliban and al-Qaida in the war-ravaged theater and put Afghans in charge of their own security, Ayotte said.

President Barack Obama has called for some U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Afghanistan in July.

Ayotte said she endorses the NATO approach reached in November in Lisbon, with Obama’s support, which sets the end of 2014 as an “aspirational goal” for the handover of all security to Afghan forces, as long as the Kabul government can secure itself against the Taliban.

“Having now been here and visited, an artificial time line for withdrawal is not something we should have,” Ayotte told reporters in a conference call. “We’re making progress here and that we should obviously continue to assess the conditions on the ground.”

Vice President Joe Biden said last week some American troop presence will likely endure in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Ayotte met with four New Hampshire Marines at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan in Nawa on Sunday. She met last Friday night with Army National Guard members of the 197th Fires Brigade from New Hampshire who are deployed in Kuwait.

“We are making progress here; however, 2011 will be a crucial year in our efforts in Afghanistan as we transition from security held by our troops to security held by the Afghans,” Ayotte said.

The trip included briefings from the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, military and foreign security leaders with the Pakistani government and Peter L. Corey, who commands the 197th Fires Brigade.

“I was incredibly impressed with the counterinsurgency strategy that he is leading,” Ayotte said of Petraeus.

The Taliban’s threat in southern Afghanistan has been reversed, Ayotte said.

Ayotte and her delegation spoke to Afghan residents and toured with Gen. Richard Mills a market in Nawa that nine months ago would have been too dangerous to visit. They also visited a training camp near Nawa in the southern Afghan province of Helmund.

“The test will be whether in this partnership, the Afghan government will bring their own security forces up to speed as well as implement a justice system,” she said.

Ayotte said the delegation stressed to Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir the need for their government to step up efforts against al-Qaida elements infiltrating the Taliban and crossing the border to fight American troops in Afghanistan.

“Pakistan faces some significant challenges from within,” Ayotte said, “and they are in the process of needing to make necessary economic reforms to ensure the financial stability of their government.

“We were very clear about our commitment, but there are sanctuaries within Pakistan, unfortunately, where the Taliban operates and can include members of al-Qaida.”

While meeting with the Marines, including residents of Concord, Unity and Keene, Ayotte said the troops were in good spirits and had been in the service two to four years.

Ayotte said one soldier she spoke with was just deployed there in September while two others would depart in a few months with one planning to attend the University of New Hampshire in Durham next year.

Ayotte said she observed women Marines who were instrumental in providing support with Afghan women in the villages.

“My view on women working in theater is that they are doing tremendous work here, they are making sacrifices and are very supportive of their efforts and deeply impressed with their effort, both men and women,” Ayotte said.

In Kuwait, the group visited New Hampshire Army National Guard troops at a dining facility at Camp Arifjan and viewed an upgraded mine resistant assault protection vehicle.

“I think it is a very important trip for a senator to take to be able to see firsthand what is happening with our efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Ayotte said of the trip, which was financed by federal taxpayers.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. led the delegation along with Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., which left Thursday from Andrews Air Force Base. It also included Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, of Florida; Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania; Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin; Lindsay Graham, of South Carolina; and Richard Burr, of North Carolina.

The delegation was scheduled to travel back to Washington, D.C., today.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.