Gov. Deval Patrick and four of his fellow state leaders received a briefing last Friday from Gen. David Petraeus as they stopped in Afghanistan amid a tour of the Middle East war zone.
Patrick said Petraeus “feels very good” about efforts — largely through Special Forces — to target Taliban leadership. But he said the new leader of U.S. and NATO forces also said he faced “an even bigger commitment over time” to win over Afghan civilians who support the Taliban not for ideological reasons, but because they have controlled the nation’s economy.
During a conference call with reporters, the governor avoided two questions about whether he felt the U.S. should still be at battle in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he visited earlier this week, and whether his trip had changed his view of the conflicts.
“I don’t think it’s really even appropriate for me to offer that opinion while I’m here,” said Patrick. “My point was to come here and express my support for the soldiers and the airmen and the Marines.”
He also said, “The opinion that matters is my high regard for the troops, and that was high before I came and it’s even higher now. I see what kind of conditions they’re working under.”
The closest the governor has come to taking a position on the wars recently was his retort to Republican critics of deficit spending to finance unemployment benefits. Patrick complained the GOP had no problem with deficit spending to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Patrick made the good-will trip with Republican Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Jim Douglas of Vermont, and fellow Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri.
He said the group departed from Kuwait at dawn last Friday and flew to Kabul before moving quickly to Camp Phoenix. He said the governors met troops from their respective states, which for Patrick included units from western Massachusetts that have been engaged in minesweeping and civilian reconstruction efforts. All told, there are about 1,100 from Massachusetts in the region.
He said he also met with members of the 1st Battalion, 101st Field Artillery Regiment, the unit in which Sgt. Robert Barrett of Fall River served before being killed in April. The 21-year-old was mortally wounded, and eight others in his battalion injured, by a suicide bomber as they trained Afghan police.
The governor attended his funeral.
Patrick said the governors also met with three wounded soldiers who had gotten their Purple Heart medals last Thursday, and that they watched a re-enlistment ceremony. The briefing with Petraeus also included U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.
“It’s just a incredibly full time at every level, in terms of the information, in terms of the emotions, having the chance to visit with some of the wounded warriors who were waiting in the hospital,” he said.
He did not disclose the remainder of his itinerary, citing security concerns, except to say he did not expect the group to visit the most active combat areas south of Kabul in Helmand Province.
While Patrick insisted the trip was not politically motivated amid his re-election campaign, he did confess to feeling the political bug during his travels.
He recalled numerous signs throughout U.S. bases, encouraging troops to vote and saying it was a reason they were battling to establish democracy.
“It’s been very tempting to have the many pictures that we’ve taken, taken in front of that sign — it being the season,” he said with a laugh.
The governor also described meeting a soldier who had attended his “youth inaugural” after he took office in 2007.
“He’s among a few who have said that he knows what he’s supposed to do in November,” Patrick said.