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The War Report

Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand talks to Metroland about her trip to Iraq and Pakistan

Interview by David King

Photos taken by Kirsten Gillibrand and her staff during their visit to Iraq and Pakistan.

 

 

‘Kirsten Gillibrand has no chance.” That was the consensus around this time last year. Gillibrand was facing an election district that had a majority of registered Republicans, and many thought that a woman who ran on reforming Congress and bringing an end to the war in Iraq would be soundly defeated by the incumbent. It’s a year later, and much has changed. Gillibrand (D-Greenport) has been in office for half a year. The country as a whole, including the 20th Congressional District, seems to have become more and more disdainful of the Bush administration’s handling of the war. And in the next election cycle, many say, Republicans everywhere will face a steep climb thanks to President George Bush’s dismal poll ratings. Despite all those changes, one thing has stayed the same. America is still at war in Iraq.

On July 7, Gillibrand returned from a weeklong trip to the Middle East as a member of the Armed Services Committee, a trip that included visits in Iraq and Pakistan. In a one-on-one phone interview with Metroland, Gillibrand described her trip and explained how it will affect her policymaking.

What sense did you get from the troops you were able to speak to?

The troops in Iraq are incredibly brave and incredibly strong. They work every day in a war zone. It is very intense for them; they are young guys, and every mission they are sent on, whether they are on a convoy with supplies or tracking Al Qaeda, they are taking their lives into their own hands every day. It is incredible, and they inspire me because they are so dedicated and focused on their mission. In terms of politics, they don’t talk about the politics of it. In Kuwait, waiting in line, one soldier said to me, “Do what you can do to get us out of here. It is hard to see what progress is being made. I’ve been here for a long time.” I asked a number of troops what kind of an impact the debate back home was having on them. And they replied, “Oh, ma’am, we’re in uniform. We don’t talk about politics, but we appreciate the raise and what you are trying to do to reduce our rotation schedule.”

A number of soldiers said, “We will complete any mission you give us.” And they will do it bravely, strongly, and with unparalleled commitment. They look to Congress and the administration for policy. But the debate does not undermine them or make them feel bad. You talk to the older guys, the generals, and they have a broader perspective. I spoke to a commander in special ops and he told me, “We killed 10 members of Al Qaeda; let us stay the course. We are making progress.” They see progress, but they are not looking at geopolitical issues and whether or not this is the best approach for undermining terrorism. Another general told me, “You know, the debate in Washington is having an impact. What is happening now is Iraqis are realizing they have to take things into their own hands and make a decision to create stability in their region.”

In the Anbar province, tribal leaders have expelled Al Qaeda in their region. They don’t want what Al Qaeda are selling. They like their modern lifestyle, they like their lives how they are living them now. From my perspective, that is a key step in undermining terrorism. It will take the Iraqi people themselves to reject terrorism, to choose stability over civil war, and those are the benchmarks we are creating.

What is life like for people in Iraq? What do they have to look forward to?

Iraq today is a very unstable and unsafe place. We took a military plane into Iraq, and we had to file down into the airport. If you don’t, you will be exposed to rocket fire and grenades. We took a Blackhawk helicopter into the Green Zone, and we were incredibly vulnerable to attacks. Any terrorist with a shoulder-fired missile could have taken it down. That is the situation our soldiers live in every day. On that helicopter, we went to the embassy, and two rockets were fired on the embassy while we were there having the meeting. Attacks are happening every minute of every day. And when they say there is success in the Anbar province, success there is instead of 50 attacks in one week there are 10. It will be a very long time before it is safe.

The real focus of American policy should be economic growth, political progress and a diplomatic effort. That is where we can make a difference. We have to bring the parties together. Young Iraqis have to have jobs to go to. That is going to bring about a much more hopeful result. When they are buildings roads and hospitals, they will choose peace over civil war. They will realize, “I have a job. I’m providing for my family; I don’t want to be in a 20-year civil war.” And they will have hope for their own future.

During your campaign, you insisted that we would need to give Iraqis a stake in their country’s oil to ensure they had an incentive to work together. Is that still possible?

Having a job and having oil revenues are important to make sure the Iraqis have a real stake in their country. It is still troubling to me that 50 percent of oil revenues are still on the black market. We need to take the oil production and secure it, and give each group a certain stake. Right now they are trying to change the Iraqi constitution so that 80 percent of oil wells will be run by foreign entities. It would be a huge mistake. It is being debated in Iraq right now, and people are standing up against it. They realize that that kind of arrangement will have a destabilizing impact. When the country’s greatest resources are given away to foreign entities, it takes away the carrots you have.

Were you able to speak with any Iraqi citizens?

The only meeting I was able to have was at the embassy, where I was able to meet with some women who received microfinance loans and started small businesses. They were seamstresses and involved in fabric-making. Some were in food production. They received $1,500, and they provided real hope for the communities because they could provide for their families. It was very inspiring, and the women were urging America to support these kind of efforts. It was clear that they make an enormous difference.

What was the purpose of your trip to Pakistan?

We went to Pakistan to assess what we are doing to undermine terrorism there. We met with the ambassador. We met with the military community. We met with the prime minister [Shaukat Aziz]. One of the things the prime minister said I thought was very powerful, he said it is the humanitarian work we are doing that is going to make a difference. He said that empty bellies are the targets for terrorism. What he meant is the greatest targets they have are people who are very poor, with a lack of hope, with a lack of future. Pakistan is very important; it shares a border with Afghanistan. That border is where refugees of the war [the Afghanis] had with the Soviet Union are, and those camps are very poor. And the Pakistani government believes Al Qaeda does recruiting there. They asked us to increase funding for education and health care, and the prime minister said he wanted to work with us militarily to track down Al Qaeda. And they are looking for our assistance economically.

Your trip to Afghanistan was canceled. Did you get a chance to gauge the severity of the situation in that country while in Pakistan?

We couldn’t make it there because there were operations going on there, and they could not guarantee our safety. But Pakistan is very concerned about its porous borders. In particular, it’s concerned about the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It really highlighted for me how broad anti-terrorism needs to be in this decade. We have to go after root causes: lack of hope, lack of a future, extreme poverty. Those are areas where organizations like Al Qaeda thrive. It really highlighted for me that the investments we need to make in Afghanistan and Pakistan are not military ones but much more focused on economic and social issues.

You have said in the past that you expect more legislators from the Republican side to change their minds, and you expect to see significant legislation passed by the fall. Do you still expect that to happen?

It’s obviously a moving target, but I do see people across America really demanding a new approach by this administration. All types of areas of this country—conservative and liberal—are changing their minds, and more members will be moving away from the president’s policies. I think we will see a move away from certain policies and benchmarks, away from military solutions and toward political ones. I think come this fall—and even sooner—bills may not pass the House, but we will come closer to the 218 votes needed.

You have made a point to keep an open-door policy with your constituents and have kept up a busy schedule of Congress on Your Corner events. Have you noticed a change in your constituents’ feelings about the war?

I talked to my neighbor this morning. He is a conservative Republican from my district, and he does not think this war is making a difference. He is concerned it is the wrong approach. He is concerned about the administration losing its way—and not just over the war but with the Scooter Libby trial as well. But that’s just his anecdotal response.

Over the last two years, it’s changed. At first folks wanted to give the administration an opportunity to pursue its policy. But there have been so many scandals, and they have undermined their confidence. The Libby scandal, the U.S. attorneys scandal—people are losing confidence in the administration. I see it even among my veteran advisory-board members. They really want forceful debate and advocacy for something different.

You have stated that you believe the way to change things in Iraq is to put pressure on the administration. With Bush being so notoriously stubborn, and his poll ratings being as low as they are, does he really have anything to lose or a reason to change? Do you still think it can work?

I do. Look at the number of Republicans last week who defected, and it is evident that the pressure is working. We are making a case to the American people that his approach is not the best. When senior Republicans start defecting, you are watching that pressure being effective. I think it is possible that we will have a significant troop reduction by the end of the administration, if not a withdrawal, and I think they will be shifting toward economic solutions.

We all have an idea of what it is like in Iraq, whether we have been there or not. How did the reality of what’s going on in Iraq compare with your expectations?

It is far worse than I ever imagined it would be. It is so unstable. There are so many threats, and my admiration for our troops grew exponentially. They are so focused on completing the mission their commanders give them. You can’t imagine how proud I was for their strength and courage. Before we went to Iraq, we went to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Wounded soldiers are brought there before they are brought home. I met two guys who were in critical care. One was hit in the neck by a sniper’s bullet and the other had shrapnel all over his body from an IED explosion. I learned so much on this trip about our soldiers and their sacrifice.


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