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Revelations in the war zones

By Jason Chaffetz, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rep. Jason Chaffetz says he feels graveness of war votes after time in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • He writes that U.S. must decide where resources can clearly help and where they can't
  • Congressman says "I stand with President Obama" on the goal in Iraq
  • But he has serious reservations about the possibility of nation-building in chaotic Afghanistan

Editor's note: Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican, represents the 3rd District of Utah in Congress and is appearing in CNN.com's "Freshman Year" series, along with Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado.

Washington (CNN) -- The men and women who are serving in our armed services are my heroes. I spent a week in the presence of true heroes -- men and women who live in the war zone, fight the enemy, risk their lives, and depend on our support.

We see images from the theaters of battle and we hear stories. But standing there in my helmet and flak jacket, hearing about IEDs that had detonated just a day earlier, and being surrounded by weapons gave me a new appreciation for those living in a war zone.

I felt a profound sense of responsibility. I am now in a position to have a vote on how this war is fought. Lives are at stake. Nearly 5,000 troops have lost their lives in this fight. Thousands more are forever changed because of their experiences here.

In Afghanistan, I met a Utah woman who had left her young children in the care of her ex-husband while she fights in one of the most dangerous places in the world. I recognized the longing in her tear-filled eyes as she talked about her children.

Being away from my own children has been the greatest challenge of my job in Congress. But it pales in comparison to this woman's sacrifice for her country.

We seem to be doing two things in Afghanistan -- fighting the enemy and building the country.
--Rep. Jason Chaffetz
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We have to get this right. I'd love to believe that we can right all the world's wrongs and somehow save the planet from poverty and strife. But we have to pick our battles. We have to decide where our resources can make a difference and where they can't.

Going to the theaters of battle was a critical step for me in understanding the depths of the individual policy initiatives.

Our first stop was Iraq. I was very encouraged as we listened to the generals on the ground. Gen. Raymond Odierno, Gen. Charles Jacoby, and Gen. Frank Helmick explained the goal -- to turn the country back over to Iraqis with an internal security force capable of protecting the country.

On this goal, I stand with President Obama. He's right to follow the advice of the generals on the ground rather than some pundits in the newsroom. The objective is clear, the goal within reach, and the exit strategy aggressive.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, is a completely different situation. We seem to be doing two things in Afghanistan -- fighting the enemy and building the country.

I support the first goal, but I have grave reservations about the second. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have proven to be dangerous enemies. Our military and intelligence services need to continue to do what it takes to root out these forces and to make sure they have no safe haven anywhere in the world. Resources spent pursuing this objective are well spent.

Nation building, on the other hand, is unrealistic and in my opinion, would take decades to accomplish. This is a country with many strikes against it. There is a high mortality rate -- with an average life span of only 47 -- minimal infrastructure and limited tools for economic development.

The country has been at war for more than 30 years. It's a dire equation that would take decades and untold billions of dollars to rectify. Even then, there is no guarantee our efforts would be successful.

I applaud the great work done by the troops on the ground in Afghanistan ensuring there is no safe haven for terrorists, but after visiting the war zone, I have serious questions and reservations about participating in long-term nation-building there.

There is absolutely no substitute for seeing the war firsthand. Two years ago, I could never have imagined the experiences I have had in the past few months.

These are complex problems with costly solutions. Given the gravity of our job in Congress and all that is at stake in these wars, I applaud each and every member of Congress who has taken the time to visit the region.

More important, may God bless the men and women in the armed forces, who are voluntarily serving the call of their country at great personal cost. Their efforts ensure our safety and security here at home.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jason Chaffetz.