EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 17, 2013

Tsongas: Women can be peacekeepers in Afghanistan

By Warren Talbot

---- — Back just two days from her fifth fact-finding trip to Afghanistan as a member of Congress, Niki Tsongas yesterday said women will need to play a key role in maintaining peace in the country after the withdrawal of U.S. troops expected in 2014.

“The situation in Afghanistan remains fragile and highly complicated and there is a lot at stake going forward. Its government cannot ignore 50 percent of their population or turn back the clock on the gains achieved for women and girls without jeopardizing the long-term security of the country,” she said in a statement.

“Afghan women are eager to protect what they have gained so that upon U.S. withdrawal, they do not see these gains slip away. After meeting with so many extraordinary Afghan women, I have no doubt they are confident and determined to continue their march toward equality. The United States and the international community have a responsibility to bolster their great advancements and prevent it from backsliding so that progress can continue.”

In a telephone interview yesterday, Tsongas, the only Massachusetts member of the House Armed Services Committee, said she and other members of a bipartisan congressional delegation visited an academy modeled after West Point where there are “modest numbers” of female students who could become members of Afghan’s security forces.

At one time, Tsongas said, “women were not allowed access at any level.”

“One of the issues...Afghan women feel as though ... they need to see an integrated police forces” in a country where woman have traditionally been oppressed, she said.

The academy, paid with U.S. dollars, “prepares an officer corps and also seeks to prepare leaders for the country,” she said.

Tsongas and the other delegation members met with coalition commanders including General Joseph Dunford and General Mark Milley. Tsongas said as part of the withdrawal of U.S. troops, 85 percent of the effort has been transferred to Afghan security forces and that Dunford and others are “relatively optimistic.”

She said the “fighting season begins right about now” and that Dunford said “we will not be actively engaging in the fight.”

“This summer will be the test,” said Tsongas, adding that there is also a “raw criminal element” in the country to contend with.

Tsongas arrived home just two days before yesterday’s suicide car bombing that tore through a U.S. convoy in the Afghan capital of Kabul. At least 15 people, including six U.S. military advisers and two children were killed, officials said. U.S. soldiers rushed to the scene to help, including some wearing only T-shirts or shorts under their body armor.

An Islamic militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out by a new suicide unit formed in response to reports that the U.S. plans to keep permanent bases and troops in Afghanistan even after the 2014 deadline for the end of the foreign combat mission. Hezb-e-Islami said its fighters had stalked the Americans for a week to learn their routine before striking.

Tsongas spent Mother’s Day visiting with “military moms,” female soldiers who have children back home.

She is troubled that women in uniform may be facing sexual abuse and said she appreciated President Obama’s leadership in meeting with the Joints Chief of Staff yesterday to address “this deeply disturbing crisis.”

“It has become painfully evident in recent weeks that saying the U.S. military has a cultural problem in regard to sexual assault and sexual misconduct, is a glaring understatement,” she said. “At worst, this is a deep-rooted and widespread acceptance of unprofessional, inappropriate and criminal behavior. At best, it is willful denial or head-turning on the part of too many military leaders.”

Tsongas said she remembers attending a Wounded Warrior luncheon in 2008 where she talked with a military nurse who said that although she had not been sexually assaulted she was becoming “more afraid of her own soldiers than she was of the enemy.”