Travel Journal: Rep. Blackburn visits Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq

Rep. Blackburn Travels to Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq

The following is a cronicle of Rep. Marsha Blackburn's journey across the Middle East, Jaunary 9-15, 2008.

Greece
Wednesday, January 9th

Greece has always been one of the great crossroads of the world where East meets West.  It made sense for our delegation to begin our trip through the Middle East here.  My sense of Greece as a cultural crossroads was reinforced by the mix of issues and concerns we addressed; transitioning from intellectual property rights to terrorist financing, all in the same day. 

Our delegation was welcomed by Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Doukas.  The Minister's mother was born in America, but his father was in the Greek Navy.  He greeted us, telling us how he still visits his American relatives annually and how pleased he was to welcome our delegation. He was certainly proud of his country and his enthusiasm made the entire delegation feel welcome.  We discussed the state of the U.S. / Hellenic alliance as well as issues that affected both Greece and Tennessee.

Foreign Minister Doukas invited several members of Greece's Hellenic Chamber of Commerce and business community to meet with our delegation.  As you would expect, the issue of Intellectual Property, piracy and infringements made it into the discussion. The Greeks are watching the issue on several different levels, primarily maritime engineering and technology, software development and Greek entertainment products. I made them aware of many of our efforts via the U.S. Trade Representative and of legislation moving through the House.  I asked them to join us in an ongoing dialogue to counteract intellectual piracy. 

The discussion of intellectual property carried over to our dinner with members of the Greek Parliament.  Beyond intellectual property, we also engaged in a discussion on terrorist financing and money laundering that evening at a dinner with members of the Greek Parliament. International security and the situation in the Middle East weighed heavily on all of our minds as well.  The Parliamentarians understand that without security, sustainable development in the region is not possible. 

All of these discussions culminated in a meeting with Greece's Prime Minister Konstandinos Karamanlis.  Our meeting with the Prime Minister also explored the issues of visas, immigration policy, and trade. The overriding issue on everyone's mind was security. As is to be expected, everyone was also concerned with the situation in the Middle East.

Turkey
Thursday, January 10

Meeting Tennesseans who serve their country abroad is always a great joy and source of pride for me.  Rebecca Kimbrell was no exception.  Rebecca is a constituent who graduated from David Lipscomb High School and Vanderbilt University. She is now an economic officer for the US Embassy in Turkey.  She served as our escort in Turkey and did an outstanding job.




Turks and southerners share a love for hospitality and good food, so we shared dinner with some of the Turkish Parliament. We were hosted by our Deputy Chief of Mission, Nancy McEldowney and could have carried our robust conversation late into the evening. While America has not been popular in Turkey for the last few years, the trend has begun to change with their new Prime Minister and President. President Abdullah Gul was just in the U.S. to speak with President Bush.

Terrorism, concerns over Kurdish terrorists in Iraq, Iran, trade, and capital investment for infrastructure development were the principle issues we discussed at dinner. The Turks even mentioned that Social Security reform is on their domestic agenda.  They see that issue as essential to their economic well being. Sounds about like us, right?  As we met with the central bank and their foreign ministry, we heard the same set of issues and concerns.

Terrorist financing and money laundering issues were addressed in Turkey as well. As with Greece, we addressed our joint intellectual property and piracy issue concerns. The Turks are working on both IP laws and enforcement provisions that will assist their pharmaceutical industry. They have implemented some best practices via their financial sector to help with guarding against money laundering and are watching it closely.

As we discussed over dinner, the Turks are looking at systemic Social Security reform. With a highly transient immigrant population, they have found that about half their population is evading paying the Social Security tax.

Of course my visits with our Ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson, and their parliament members included a mention of Memphis in May's salute to Turkey this year.  I reiterated the invitation to each of them to visit our fine state and our much loved Memphis. My hope is that some of them will choose to join us.

We also talked about our West Tennessee cotton which has found its way to the textile industry in Turkey. Maybe we will see more Turkish towels in the neighborhood stores! 

Afghanistan
Sunday, January 13th

After a long series of all day flights across several countries in the Middle East, we finally arrived in Afghanistan last Sunday.  Bagram Air force base has expanded a bit since my last visit in 2006. This former Soviet Air Base is now home to the Combined Joint Task Force and every branch of service is represented there.

Tennessee's own 101st Airborne Division is currently deploying to Bagram and I was overjoyed to get to have a town hall meeting with some of these troops. They are hard at work, understand their mission and are doing their best to be certain Afghanistan becomes a stable and secure country that can function independently.



Some of the troops we encountered expressed both concern and disappointment with the lack of American public awareness and understanding of their good work and successes in Afghanistan.  One of our soldiers asked me "Do you think Americans understand we are at war every day and we are winning some battles every day?" 

2007 has seen some positive movement and big steps in the right direction. To get the word out, our troops have taken matters into their own hands.  Included here are some blogs and web sites you can bookmark to read about some of the good work our men and women are doing on the ground there.  As I become aware of more blogs I will add them to the website.  For now, try http://cjtf-a.com and www.centcom.mil.

Our troops were pleased that there has been a good bit of congressional travel in to see their progress over the last few weeks and were very pleased that the President recently stopped in for a visit. I guess when you are deployed a far away, it is nice to see a face from home- even if they are from the Government.America's men and women in uniform are working hard to secure Afghanistan and I am humbled by every one of them. 

The other side of the coin in Afghanistan is the development of the civil society. We had a thorough briefing by Gen. Rodriguez, commander of our forces in Afghanistan. He highlighted the innovation that is beginning to take place in the country.

Afghanistan, a country devastated by decades of war and with almost no infrastructure now has over 3 million cell phone users.  In order to fight corruption many people working for civil defense agencies are receiving their paychecks not in cash, but by electronic funds transfer!

Infrastructure development is continuing and the Afghanis are beginning to take the lead on building roads, water retention systems and schools. More children than ever are in schools and the attendance of girls to school has risen 23% in the past year. 75% of  Afghanis have access to health care.

Our military commanders defined their job as being in the hope business. I think that is an apt description and one that could apply to our visit to Kabul as well.  Kabul leaves you feeling as though you have stepped back in time.  Many of the buildings are made from mud brick, and constructed using bamboo or wooden scaffolding.  The streets teem with Afghanis in exotic dress on every imaginable form of transportation.  It isn't uncommon to see a mule pulling a pickup truck. 

What a surprise to find traffic jams and bustling activity in a city devastated by decades of war.  It took a while for us to get from the airport in Kabul to the Embassy compound. Of course, those roads are shared by walkers, bikers, donkeys pulling wagons and automobiles. But the point is they are out shopping and moving thru the market stalls which are now full of tangerines, pomegranates, meats, tomatoes, cauliflower, coca-cola and cell phones. 

The streets are cratered with pot holes and the market plazas are primarily dirt or broken concrete but people are everywhere and children are chasing one another thru the shops and walkways and playing. What a change! In my Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce meeting, I mentioned my pleasure in observing this change and was told the violence in Afghanistan is now primarily confined to 7 of the 34 provinces. Still security, lack of a legal framework, abundance of corruption, inadequate infrastructure and lack of education are real impediments to success.

As we visited with Ambassador Wood and his economic team, we were able to see they do have a plan, they have benchmarks and they feel a productive Afghanistan is attainable.

Ambassador Wood and I had met before, when he was stationed in Columbia, as we worked through issues of the Central American Free Trade Agreement that are important to our state. I was pleased to see him in Afghanistan and know he is capable of steering the process the down the right path.

Iraq
Tuesday, January 15th

We flew into Iraq on a C-130, so I was able to stand at the window and see the countryside.  Iraq from the air doesn't look like what one would expect, certainly not like the pictures you see on the news.  I saw wheat crops, vegetable gardens, and orchards. Agriculture is definitely beginning to flourish.

Our first stop of the day was Irbil, Kurdistan.  When we arrived I realized that what I have been hearing from many of our Kurdish constituents is indeed no exaggeration. The area is experiencing a building boom. It has a new airport, new government buildings, new houses, new streets, and is producing several hundred thousand barrels of oil a day. Over 300 schools are open, new homes are being built and shopping centers are being constructed.

Kurdish Prime Minister Barazani received us for a meeting and immediately expressed his appreciation to the U.S. military and the American people for being liberated from Saddam's dictatorship. He also expressed thanks for how well received the Kurdish families have been in the Nashville area. He likes Tennessee and was grateful that Tennesseans have been supportive of the economic and educational efforts in the Kurdish region.

The Prime Minister and his ministers talked at length about developing a forward thinking, educated society that will never accept a dictatorship.  They also discussed the de-Baathification law, the hydrocarbons law and oil revenue sharing. Their region has the ability to explore and produce even greater sources of oil and feel Iraq could quadruple their oil exports.   This issue dovetails nicely into the budget and revenue sharing concerns they have expressed. But above it all, security is the issue and how to best secure the area is the overriding question.

From northern Iraq, we flew south to Baghdad where I was able to see more Tennesseans in uniform.  I have developed such an appreciation through my work representing Ft. Campbell and by working with the families of our military, our Guardsmen, and our Reservists. Their commitment to defend our country, their ability and skill in carrying out their missions impresses me every time I get to visit them. 

Again in Baghdad I met with some of our troops. The 2nd brigade of the 101st Airborne is stationed at Camp Victory. This group has been in the field since October. Needless to say, they would all love to be home-- several were on their 3rd deployment-- but they are committed to this mission and are doing outstanding work.



The soldiers I spoke to felt this deployment was the smoothest yet and said they have the tools and equipment they need. They do wish that Skype and the internet would work more consistently. These men and women are the brightest and best and we need to make certain the U.S. Congress makes their needs a priority.

We talked about the success of the surge as they see it. Attacks on civilians are down. Sectarian violence is down. IED incidences are down. These efforts have delivered the result we had hoped to see.



Following this visit, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih took time to meet with us.  His parting statement to us summarized my visit to today.  He asked us not give up on this mission. Good things are happening in Iraq.

I took the opportunity to ask him about government and legal reform, and hydrocarbons legislation, We talked about the War of Ideas and what we should do as partners to win.



Our day concluded with a briefing from both General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker to recount what has occurred with the surge and to chart the way forward as we seek to realize the goal of a stable, independent, and viable Iraq.