McCollum shares Afghan experiences

by Courtney Blanchard

Rep. Betty McCollum, the Democratic congresswoman representing St. Paul, talked Monday on campus about her trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Addressing a modest crowd at the Humphrey Institute, McCollum said Afghanistan has faded into the background next to the Iraqi war, but despite the stark difference, should not be forgotten.

“Afghanistan and Iraq are night and day,” she said.

The fourth-term representative, who recently won a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, traveled overseas with a bipartisan congressional delegation to talk to leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan about foreign policy.

In Pakistan, McCollum and fellow representatives spoke to leaders about the insecure border with Afghanistan. Insurgents hold terrorist training camps in Pakistan and routinely cross the border to contribute to the instability in Afghanistan.

McCollum said that while many criticize Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for not clamping down on the Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents crossing the border, the instability runs deeper.

“The Taliban are alive and well in Pakistan,” she said, adding that the country is still holding on to a fragile democracy in spite of that.

“People are pretty happy economically,” McCollum said. “But people are feeling very insecure about where their country is going.”

McCollum also addressed the state of women in both countries. Dressed in a vibrant maroon tunic with gold embroidery purchased in Pakistan, she talked about how necessary it is to “dress the part” in the Middle East.

McCollum said before her first trip to the region, she met with members of the congressional library research division on protocol. She wore longer suit jackets to cover her hips, loose-fitting slacks and modest shoes.

Even so, she said her appearance could have endangered her in some areas.

“I would be at risk in Islamabad if I were in the wrong neighborhood,” McCollum said. “In the wrong place at the wrong time, I could have someone throw acid at me.”

Of course, the delegation traveled with tight security, but issues of gender still came up.

After the speech, McCollum said one meeting with Afghan elders in a remote village became awkward because they didn’t shake her hand.

“For some, it was their first encounter meeting Americans, let alone an (American) woman,” she said.

McCollum said she was optimistic about the war in Afghanistan, where the people are more cooperative with U.S. forces and don’t want the insurgents there.

“Afghanistan is doable, because the Afghanis want it for themselves,” she said. “But that’s not our focus, because Iraq is draining so much of our resources.”

She said the troop level is currently too low in Afghanistan, but that it’s too late to send more because they’re tied up in Iraq.

She suggested that if troops were withdrawn from Iraq, they could be rotated back into Afghanistan – after given the appropriate resting period.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale attended and afterward said he was impressed when representatives, like McCollum, travel to dangerous places, especially those that deal unjustly with women.

“The fact that she’s traveling gives her a certain depth of understanding,” he said.

McCollum is the second congresswoman to lecture in the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance’s “Connecting with Government: Public Forums with Minnesota’s Elected Officials” program. Sen. Amy Klobuchar spoke last week, and the Center’s director, Larry Jacobs, said Rep. Tim Walz, Rep. Jim Ramstad and Sen. Norm Coleman will stop by later this spring.