Keating’s overseas trip highlights challenges

Iraq, Afghanistan at key junctures

“The end of the story hasn’t been told, and I don’t think can be forecast,’’ Keating says. “The end of the story hasn’t been told, and I don’t think can be forecast,’’ Keating says.
By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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WASHINGTON — From within the US embassy walls in Baghdad, he could hear the explosion.

US Representative William R. Keating, Democrat of Quincy, and other members of Congress were meeting with military and State Department officials Monday when a roadside bomb, reportedly laid to ambush a passing convoy, was detonated. Although no one died in that blast, the delegation had just been told of an earlier rocket attack that killed five US service members, the most devastating attack against American forces in Iraq in two years.

For the freshman congressman, the attacks early in his first trip to the restive Middle East and near Asia served as a sobering reminder of the cost of US involvement there. They also highlighted the difficult questions American leaders face in the coming months as they seek to complete a drawdown of forces in Iraq and begin one in Afghanistan.

“The end of the story hasn’t been told, and I don’t think can be forecast,’’ Keating, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a phone interview.

His weeklong trip with four Republican colleagues through five countries ended yesterday in Germany.

Before he left, Keating visited soldiers injured in the rocket attack.

Some members of Congress regularly cycle through Iraq and Afghanistan, but Keating’s visit to the two theaters of US military operations and Pakistan came at an unusual time.

He touched down amid a wave of violence in Iraq and on the cusp of an expected drawdown in Afghanistan. And his delegation visited Pakistan just weeks after the operation that killed Osama bin Laden last month; Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, traveled there shortly after the raid.

Passing first through Kuwait, the delegation with Keating arrived in Baghdad last Sunday and dined with soldiers that night, including some from Massachusetts.

“I think there’s a perception that it’s safe [in Iraq],’’ Keating said. “I think it’s fair to say more than anything that Iraq’s in the transition stage, but there is still violence there, and we saw it.’’

After Iraq, he traveled to Pakistan, where officials told the visiting delegation of the difficulty that the unannounced raid against bin Laden had caused for the Pakistanis, because the operation took place without the knowledge or participation of the government.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was among the officials who met with the delegation.

“They want to know, to share in, what our military objectives are. They clearly weren’t informed ahead of time, and they thought that caused great problems in terms of confidence that people have in their own military,’’ Keating said.

That difficulty has deepened in recent days after paramilitary troopers shot a teenage boy.

The killing was broadcast on TV stations around the country, deepening tensions between the public and powerful security forces.

From Pakistan, Keating traveled to Afghanistan, where the delegation met with General David H. Petraeus, the commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan, and his incoming replacement, General John R. Allen.

He visited several cities — including the critical city of Marjah, the site of a major offensive after President Obama implemented his troop surge last year — job-training sites and a market deemed safe enough for visiting dignitaries.

The Pentagon is slated to begin reducing troop levels in July, the start of a drawdown that is expected to conclude by 2014. Last month, Keating joined fellow House members from Massachusetts in supporting a measure that sought a quicker withdrawal from Afghanistan. The measure failed, but its surprising level of support indicates how uneasy Congress has become with the situation there.

Among the greatest uncertainties in Afghanistan is stability after a US withdrawal.

“What we don’t want to have happen . . . is military success followed by civilian defeat, where we just leave and then the Taliban come right back in and set up shop,’’ Keating said.

“Then our national security back at home, the regional security, is all at stake again,’’ he said.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry chairs, released a report last week critical of the economic aid and stabilization strategy in Afghanistan, saying that nation-building efforts may not last after US troops are gone and could have damaging consequences.

The president has asked for $3.2 billion in aid for Afghanistan next year.

Iraq and Afghanistan show the limits of a “one-size-fits-all’’ foreign aid strategy, Keating said. Iraq has an educated population and relatively developed infrastructure, he said, whereas Afghanistan’s high illiteracy and deep poverty, coupled with decades of war that preceded the US invasion, make nation-building there particularly difficult.

But Keating was heartened, he said, by his conversations with Afghans, such as one with a police recruit who told him that he sought only a stable and peaceful country where his children could thrive and learn.

“In Afghanistan, there are those people that I met that are doing it for themselves, for their own families, for their own communities,’’ he said. “Ultimately — that’s how success will be measured.’’

Theo Emery can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @temery.