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Afghan Trips Become Election Issue

Rival says congressman did more harm than good with his early visits to the country.

October 14, 2002|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher made himself an expert on a faraway country that, until last year, drew little notice from his Orange County constituents.

The Huntington Beach Republican toured the dusty mountain camps of Afghanistan in 1988, befriending rebel leaders fighting the Soviet invaders. Bearded and wearing some of the regional garb, Rohrabacher once encountered supporters of Osama bin Laden.

The congressman's activities in the country intensified after the Soviets pulled out. He spent years trying to negotiate a peace to Afghanistan's civil war, touring the region several more times.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks last year, Rohrabacher, who had been dismissed by many as a far-right ideologue, suddenly was sought out by the media and the Bush administration for his insights into the central Asian nation.

But as Rohrabacher seeks reelection, Democratic challenger Gerrie Schipske is trying to haunt him with that record, saying he's done more harm than good in Afghanistan. She points to comments he made in 1996 praising Taliban fundamentalists as a force for stability. His diplomatic efforts have hurt U.S. interests in the region, she said, and have come at the expense of dealing with issues closer to home. "Not one person I've talked to thinks [what he's done] is a statesman's act," Schipske said.

Rohrabacher, 55, angrily dismisses the criticism as the desperate acts of a challenger running in a solidly Republican district. "I think my constituents are very happy that someone gets in the face of gangsters and tyrants," he said.

Rohrabacher has won every election in his district since 1988, by a wide margin. He has consistently dwarfed his challengers in fund-raising. This year, his district has been expanded to include Palos Verdes Peninsula and a portion of Long Beach, beefing up the margin of Republican voters.

Still, Rohrabacher's work in Afghanistan has emerged as the major issue in what would otherwise be a low-key campaign.

It was a hot topic at the first of the candidates' debates this month, and Schipske attacks the congressman in campaign literature that shows him squatting among Afghan fighters with a rifle balanced on his lap.

The controversy comes when Rohrabacher's public profile has never been higher. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., the congressman has become a fixture on television news programs, and he has met several times with White House officials to discuss Afghanistan.

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Rohrabacher's history with Afghanistan dates to 1981. As a young speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, he was outraged by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and identified with the ragtag band of rebels fighting the superpower.

Rohrabacher saw it as a clear-cut struggle of good versus evil, which appealed to his vision of the United States as a defender of democracy. His worldview was developed during years as a grass-roots GOP activist in California and member of Young Americans for Freedom, an activist group of young Republicans.

Adopting the underdog's cause, he studied Afghanistan's history and politics, becoming a specialist while writing speeches. In 1988, voters in coastal Orange County elected Rohrabacher to the House of Representatives, and he itched to visit the freedom fighters he'd lionized on paper.

Just months before he was sworn in, he traveled to Afghanistan and spent a week with a moujahedeen infantry unit fighting the Soviets.

"I wanted to get out there on the front lines with them so they would know I had the courage not just to talk the talk but to walk the walk," he said.

He came back to Washington even more resolved to be their advocate.

The Soviet pullout in the early 1990s was a short-lived victory as Afghanistan slipped into a bloody civil war. Rohrabacher pushed for a peace agreement under which former king Zaher Shah would return, ushering in what he hoped would be an era of democracy. He met in Europe with warring factions, including some leaders who would later form the Taliban, the religious extremist group that ultimately took control of the country.

In 1996, he was quoted in the foreign policy publication Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, characterizing the Taliban takeover as a "positive development." He predicted that the Taliban would bring "stability in an area where chaos was creating a real threat to the U.S."

He also told the journal that the Taliban were "devout traditionalists, not terrorists [and] they did not seem intent on exporting their beliefs."

His Democratic opponent has now jumped on that interview as evidence that Rohrabacher was misguided in his approach to a regime that would become infamous for human rights violations and harboring the terrorist network that attacked the United States last year.

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