Four Republican freshman senators, including Florida's Marco Rubio, have been in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the past four days, meeting with troops, military officials and dining last night with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Rubio said the trip was designed to give the senators a "general orientation" of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"One thing is clear," Rubio said. "2011 is going to be a critical year for Afghan security forces to step up and play a bigger role."
He got a chance to see some of the security forces training firsthand and noted the trainees and their trainers -- U.S., British and Jordanian forces -- have got a tough slog. He noted some of the Afghan men being trained "have never driven a vehicle before," but said officials on the ground reported progress.
"They're making strides in that direction, they're worlds away from were they were not so long ago," he said. "Everyone on the ground is enthusiastic, but progress is being made."
He said his group was able to move about a marketplace: "There's no way to overestimate how serious the challenge is, but we are headed in the right direction."
And he cautioned against setting troop withdrawal deadlines: "Everywhere we went, from the market to the streets, to Afghan authorities to the president, we heard it is important to understand that the U.S. is committed to seeing this through. Otherwise, the Taliban and even Al Queda is waiting for the U.S. to leave so they can move back in."
"We have to show we are commited," he said. "The goal is to leave behind a functioning Afghan state and that's what's happening."
He noted there is a 2014 goal to end US combat missions, and said he's opposed to setting any dates for withdrawal.
"All they have to do is wait us out," he said of the Taliban. "We heard that repeatedly. We heard that over and over."