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January 22. 2013 8:41PM

Ayotte visits Afghanistan, Middle East, says arm Syrian rebels


Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., stands in Afghanistan with Lieutenant Commander Ted Holland Jr. of Derry. 

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte returned from a seven-day trip to Afghanistan and the Middle East on Sunday, more convinced than ever the U.S. should help arm Syrian rebels, take a tougher stance against Iran and show stronger support for Israel in its dealings with Egypt and Iran.

"It is a very, very challenging time in the Middle East, and the United States needs to remain engaged," the New Hampshire Republican said in an interview Tuesday. "If we are not engaged, we will not have any say in trying to prevent more extremist elements from being involved.

"There have been claims that al-Qaida has been decimated and extremism is waning," she said. "But it's clear al-Qaida is, unfortunately, vibrant, and we need to remain vigilant and engaged in the Middle East."

Ayotte was part of a bipartisan delegation of members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees that included Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as well as Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Chris Coons of Delaware.

From Monday, Jan. 14, through Sunday, Jan. 20, they visited Egypt, Afghanistan, Jordan and Israel.

Ayotte said the information she obtained from the trip will be a useful basis for questions she will pose during Armed Services Committee hearings, including the upcoming confirmation hearing on Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel.

"There's nothing more valuable, especially in Afghanistan, from hearing from the commanders and troops on the ground," she said.

In Jordan, Ayotte and the delegation went to the Za'atri Refugee Camp for thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the violence of the Assad regime.

"Assad is killing children, women and torturing his people and bombing the bakery lines so they can't get food," Ayotte said.

"Refugees asked, 'Where is the U.S. on this? Why are we not getting help from the international community?" said Ayotte.

"A teacher told me, 'If this situation continues, our kids will feel nothing and this generation will have psychological problems.'

"She told me, 'Our children will take their revenge out on the international community for those who have not helped the Syrian people.'"

With extremists becoming increasingly involved in Syria, the U.S. should not remain idle, Ayotte said.

"The less involved we are, the more we face the danger that when the Assad regime does go, the more the extremists will be involved in that country in a way that will be unsafe to the rest of the Middle East and our country," she said.

"We must do much more to arm the Syrian opposition because this is not a fair fight," Ayotte said. "Iran and Russia are giving weapons to Assad, and is it in our strategic interest to have Assad go because of the effect on Iran."

"We are not arming the opposition, and I think we should."

In Egypt, Ayotte said the senators spoke with President Mohamed Morsi about amending his country's constitution to give clearer rights to women and religious minorities, such as Coptic Christians.

She said the senators had a "very direct" discussion with Morsi about anti-Semitic remarks he made in 2010. After the meeting, Morsi issued a statement rejecting discrimination and incitement to violence based on religion.

But the Obama administration said it was not enough to ease concerns about his earlier comments promoting "hatred" of Jews.

"Morsi did stress the importance of the relationship between the United States and Egypt," Ayotte said. "He said to us directly that he believed it was very important and he said he was hoping to bury the hatchet on issues that have come up between us."

In Israel, Ayotte said, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "was very, very energized about the threat from Iran. He basically said Iran must be stopped in the enrichment phase from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

Ayotte said Netanyahu told the senators that sanctions are having a positive effect, but, "Only a combination of tough sanctions and a credible military threat will stop Iran short of military action.

"Iran needs to understand that while we don't want to take military action, they need to stop what they are doing because, as the President has said, the military option is on the table."

Ayotte said initial plans for the delegation to visit Mali were scrapped for security reasons. She said as a result she was unable to learn any additional details of the terrorist hostage-taking in Algeria last week.

In Afghanistan, Ayotte met not only with President Hamid Karzi and Gen. John Allen, commander of the U.S. and international forces there, but also with three Granite Staters: Capt. Jeffrey Osgood of the Pease Air National Guard Base, Lt. Cmdr. Ted Holland of Derry and Rabia Altaf of Lebanon, who works at the U.S. Embassy.

Ayotte said that while President Barack Obama decides the size of the U.S. force to remain in Afghanistan after the drawdown is complete in 2014, "not only do we have the concern that all the sacrifice we've made, if it unravels, could provide a breeding ground for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups again, but we also have significant equipment there.

"We have at least 3,000 troops there just to take the equipment out. Whatever follow-on force we have has to be sufficient to continue our counter-terrorism effort and support the Afghan National Army and make sure we have protection for those who are taking our equipment out.

"We can't allow it to become a haven for extremists again," she said.

Ayotte said she met with Maj. Gen. Richard Longo, who, she said, expressed support for legislation she sponsored with former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown that forbids contracting with enemies.

The measure tightened oversight of U.S. funds for reconstruction projects following two recent reports that taxpayer money had been indirectly funneled to corrupt leaders and insurgents, including the Taliban.

"He told me it was a tremendous tool but that we need to expand it, so I'm going to be working on legislation to do that," Ayotte said.

Separately, Ayotte said she will watch with interest when outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the Sept. 11 attack at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Ayotte has been a strong critic of the Obama administration's handling of security at the facility and its initial explanation that the attack was a spontaneous riot.

jdistaso@unionleader.com


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