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Don Davis, Published January 08 2010

Franken hears from experts on Afghanistan

ST. PAUL – U.S. Sen. Al Franken will return to Washington with some new thoughts about the American involvement in Afghanistan.

One is that too much emphasis is being placed on the military and not enough on rebuilding the poor, war-torn country. Another is that the United States needs a way to measure whether its Afghan policy is successful.

Six Minnesota foreign policy experts, five from the University of Minnesota, sat down with Franken on Thursday afternoon as he sought input to prepare him for a vote on President Barack Obama’s Afghan strategy.

“So far, we are only hearing talk of military strategies,” said Emily Gaarder, a University of Minnesota Duluth sociology and anthropology professor.

Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, agreed: “Defense has got primacy.”

However, Gaarder said, military and development work must occur at the same time. Besides helping Afghans out of poverty, she said, it would make it easier for them to accept and trust American troops.

She said that non-military issues “are a blip on the screen” for American leaders.

After meeting with Franken, Gaarder, a University of Minnesota Morris graduate and a peace activist, said “there is a need for us to provide security ... but we build security through relationships.”

Command Sgt Maj. Scott Mills of the Minnesota National Guard told Franken it took five to six years for the military to make significant progress in Iraq and something similar could be expected in Afghanistan.

Mills, the top enlisted Minnesota guardsman, contended that the military must clear out the Taliban and keep the country safe before much development can occur.

One of the country’s top experts on developing other countries added his perspective for Franken.

J. Brian Atwood, the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs dean, agreed it is difficult to build the country in the middle of an insurrection.

Atwood said problems other than military action need to be tackled, too. For instance, he said, Afghanistan had “a very bad election” and a government that lacks backing of the Afghan public.

Atwood was a top State Department official in the Clinton and Carter administrations, including six years running the U.S. Agency for International Development.

He predicted the United States will be involved with Afghanistan “for at least a decade,” although not necessarily with a strong military presence. Obama has set mid-2011 as the time when the American military should begin leaving the country.

The United States has a lot to learn, Douglas Johnson said.

“We know a little bit about community building, but we don’t know a whole lot,” said Johnson, of the Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture.

The senator said he generally supports Obama’s plan to add 30,000 troops to the American Afghan force, but questions remain.

Franken, in office since July, went to Afghanistan four times on entertainment tours as a comedian, when he stayed longer than he will be able to when he makes an expected congressionally sponsored Afghan trip soon.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com