Afghanistan must end its corruption, and U.S. troops need to gain the trust of the people so they will not follow the Taliban out of fear, said U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton) in a phone interview with reporters about his trip Dec. 28-29 to the war-torn country.
McNerney said he focused on corruption issues during a meeting with President Hamid Karzai on the first day.
"He is a warm and gracious person with a good understanding of American culture," said McNerney, noting that Karzai speaks good English. "I focused on the corruption issue, and he would not accept the fact that he is responsible for some of these problems."
He also met with a task force on major crimes to discuss how to crack down on corruption and how to prosecute. One of the big corruption issues is extortion.
"In Kandahar, there are two syndicates that run the town," McNerney explained. "Every business has to make payments to those syndicates. No wonder people turn from government."
He was encouraged by the condition of Kabul although the air quality was poor and most of the buildings had been damaged by years of conflict.
"But it was very clear to me that the local markets were bustling," said McNerney. "I didn't see any fear or anything like that in the street."
He was also positive about his meeting with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
"He was unassuming and has a good knowledge and understanding of history and America's place in the region and what it's going to take to make our effort work over there," said McNerney. "His biggest mission is to protect citizens from the Taliban. That's critical. We have to show people we can protect them from extremists and the Taliban, and then they will support us in that effort."
"Gen. McChrystal acknowledged that there's a long slog ahead of us," he added. "Nonetheless the fact that we changed our tactics from seek and destroy have made a big difference."
The poppy fields still are a main source of income, McNerney said, and if the U.S. poisons or bombs them it would only turn the people to the Taliban. To combat the problem, the U.S. is building roads.
"One challenge with the poppy is the bad guys take care of the transportation for the farmers," said McNerney. "We want to put the infrastructure in place for them to take their produce to market."
McNerney was also pleased to see the coordinated efforts by many nations.
"The Canadians, civilian agencies, they were integrated at every level, in the field working with people, delivering electricity to Kandahar for example," he observed. "They have a clear idea of what needs to be done. If we continue to move in that direction, we have a good chance to stabilize."
McNerney traveled with three other Democrat congressmen and four Republicans.
"It was a great opportunity for us to work on bipartisanship," said McNerney, who was the only one from west of the Mississippi. "It was a good chance to get to know the other guys. It was good for that reason alone."
On his trip to a forward operating base, McNerney met a paratrooper who told him that he hadn't had a pay increase in a long time. To this end, McNerney reintroduced the Combat Operations and Medical Benefit Authorization for our Troops (COMBAT) Act.
"I introduced it today to make sure these soldiers over there don't have to worry about their families back home," said McNerney.
He put forward a similar bill last year and surmises it did not succeed because it was late in the session.
"I'm going to push hard on this bill," he said.
The new bill increases eight types of military specialty pay, many of which have not been increased for several years.
1. Hostile Fire and Imminent Danger
Hostile Fire Pay is for service members exposed to hostile fire or explosion of hostile mines. Increases from $225 to $600 per month.
Imminent Danger Pay for service members serving in specifically designated places deemed to pose a threat of physical harm or imminent danger due to insurrection, war, or terrorism. Increases from $225 to $350 per month.
Note: Hostile Fire and Imminent Danger pay cannot be collected simultaneously.
2. Family Separation Pay
Partial reimbursement for those involuntarily separated from their dependents for extra expenses that result from such separation. Increases from $250 to $450 per month.
3. Special Warfare Officer Continuation Pay
A service member may be paid a retention bonus of up to $20,000, an increase from $15,000, for each year of retention of that service member.
4. Hazardous duty pay
This specialty pay is available to service members who encounter particularly hazardous types of duty, including: frequent and regular participation in aerial flight as a crew member; parachute jumping as an essential part of military duty; explosive demolition as a primary duty, including training for that duty; the testing of aircraft or missile systems (or components of such systems) during which highly toxic fuels or propellants are used, or the handling of chemical munitions (or components of such munitions).
Hazardous duty pays range from $150 to $450 per month of which service members can receive up to three per month. McNerney's legislation raises each type of hazardous duty pay by $50.
5. Combat-Related Injury & Rehabilitation Pay
Service members who were medically evacuated out of a combat zone and considered "hospitalized" are entitled this type of pay. Increases from $430 to $600 per month.
6. Psychologists and Non-physician health care provider specialty pay
Pay for psychologists and other types of medical professionals who treat members of the military. A RAND study found that Department of Defense salaries for civilian psychologists and social workers are not competitive with rates provided in the civilian market, or the VA system, which increases the "likelihood that DoD will lose civilian providers to the VA system as they learn that they can earn substantially higher salaries for performing essentially the same job." Given the concern about retention of psychologists and medical professionals, McNerney's bill doubles the amount of psychologist and non-physician health care provider specialty pay. Current pay in this category ranges from $2,000 to $5,000 per year.
7. Service as member of Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team
The term "Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team" means a team of members of the reserve components of the Armed Forces in support of emergency preparedness programs to prepare for or to respond to any emergency involving the use of a weapon of mass destruction. Increases from $150 to $300 per month.
8. Members extending duty at designated locations overseas
Pay for a service member who has completed a tour of duty at a location outside the continental United States who, at the end of that tour of duty, executes an agreement to extend that tour for a period of not less than one year. Increased from $80 month or $2,000 lump sum per year to $200 per month or $3,000 lump sum yearly payment.