A town hall meeting about the war in Afghanistan held by U.S. Rep. Jim Himes Saturday morning drew an emotional and at times rancorous crowd of about 300 people to the Ridgefield Playhouse.
With boos, cheers and outbursts of "shut up" occurring frequently when audience members asked questions and made statements, Himes, D-4th District, spent more than an hour listening and responding, following his opening remark that his decisions have to be based on the ideas, issues and concerns expressed at such forums.
Himes, who spent several days in Afghanistan before Christmas, said he didn't know exactly where he stood on how the U.S. should proceed with the war and said that what his constituents tell him during four town meetings he conducted on the topic throughout the week will hold the greatest importance in how he decides to vote on the issue.
Himes said he and the members of Congress with him in Afghanistan had to wear body armor and be surrounded with lots of protection, and what he learned during the trip is that the situation is very dire there.
"We are not winning the war," he said, "(and) the percentage of territory that is under Taliban control has increased fairly dramatically in the last year."
At the same time, he said he found optimism and enthusiasm among U.S. troops and civilian personnel—that they believe they have an ability to achieve their mission of bringing stability and development to Afghanistan.
"There is no morale problem. People believe they're making a difference and the numbers suggest that they are correct," Himes said.
Himes said President Barack Obama has been criticized for being "a little fuzzy" about when the U.S. will begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, saying he'll begin contemplating that in 18 months.
"I will tell you from my own work and observations this is not a problem that can be solved in 18 months," Himes said. "The reconstruction and stabilization of Afghanistan is probably a decades-long project."
The portion of the program for audience questions and remarks began with a man asking Himes if he believed the U.S. was in a war against terrorism and whether he believed terrorists who have attacked this country "deserve to be given U.S. constitutional rights and be put in our faces and our courtrooms when they should be either executed, water-boarded or whatever it takes to keep us safe."
Following cheers and whistling from the audience in approval of the question, Himes said he had no doubt in his mind the U.S. is at war with radical Islam around the world.
Himes said the attempt to set off an explosive in an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day meant we are not nearly as secure from attack as we had hoped to be and that as a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, he would try to find out how a guy who basically had a sign on him saying "I'm a terrorist" got on an airplane.
Himes said hundreds of terrorists have been tried in the country's court system successfully for many years—"so you can't point to that and say it doesn't work"—and he adamantly disagreed that we should just execute them.
While noting that military tribunals have been used by this country in the past, Himes said that, when we're confident that we can secure a conviction, terrorists should be tried in U.S. courts. We should say to ourselves, "We are better than you; we are going to afford you rights that you would deny us," Himes said.
Another audience member said he served three tours in Vietnam, "so I know failure." We're like the elephant being chased by a mouse in Afghanistan and need a new strategy, he concluded.
Himes said he opposed the Iraq war but he has generally leaned into the notion that the invasion of Afghanistan was "necessary and critical."
Himes said the question at the moment is, "Is the president's strategy the right one, or are we better served by more or fewer troops?"
Another attendee who identified himself as a Vietnam veteran said Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who is leading U.S. forces in Afghanistan, asked for 60,000 troops, and the politicians agreed to 30,000.
The man continued, "Like Vietnam, Mr. Congressman, you're going to send 30,000 out there to get butchered and shot up for no damn good reason and lose the damn war, so vote no and send what we need."
Himes said he asked McChrystal if 30,000 troops was sufficient and the general said yes.
Himes said the decision to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan was not made by politicians locking themselves a room but by very close coordination with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA and others.
"Nobody in the military has said this strategy doesn't work," Himes said, adding that five or ten years from now we may learn that we needed a lot more troops.