Congressman Jeff Fortenberry Discusses Afghanistan, Covid-19 and Agriculture

Aug. 20, 2021, 1:55 p.m. ·

Jeff Fortenberry Headshot with the congressman in a dark suit and a yellow and blue striped shirt with the American flag over his shoulder.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Jeff Fortenberry)

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There’s a lot going on in the world right now, from the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan to the spread of COVID-19 at home. Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry talked with Nebraska Public Media news about these issues and more.

William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media: The first question that I had for you is about Afghanistan. That seems to be the national news headline right now, what happened? Everybody is sort of looking for answers as to how we got to the point that we did, where we have these very dramatic images on TV. So from your perspective, how did this occur?

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry: I think we're all bewildered. Honestly, it's shocking. It's horrifying. There's a conflict here, I think in most members of Congress hearts, most Americans hearts, the original war fighters, men and women, who went to Afghanistan, now they're seeing their sons and daughters fighting there, America's longest war. And so to try to unwind that, to step back from that, as quickly and as reasonably as possible is a legitimate public policy goal. But not to watch it collapse in horror. It undermines America's credibility around the world. You still have as maybe as many as 10,000 Americans trapped there. You had a conflicted message come out of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he really was saying, we're not going to go beyond the wire and you're kind of on your own until a public policy decision is made? We need to get our people out. That's the immediate consideration, along with Afghans who have served right next to us, risked their lives, believed in America, believe in our commitments. I'm hopeful that this gets sorted out and sorted out quickly. I have reports that other countries are not waiting. They're going in and getting their people out. I don't see why we can't do the same thing. I had advocated before all of this a very small American footprint to remain as a stabilization force, it was at 2500, to provide intelligence operations cover, logistic leadership, some tactical support for the Afghan army as it continued to mature.

Padmore: What does Taliban rule mean for the Afghan people? And then what does it mean for folks here at home? Does, this put us at greater risk?

Congressman Fortenberry: Well, first of all, I need to say, William, I think our veterans are just crestfallen, brokenhearted, particularly those who have served or people who know those who have served us, as I know many. No one wanted it to look this way. What is the Taliban going to look like? I don't know. We know what they did look like. Repression of women, random killings, a twisted dark theocracy. They're saying gentler and kinder things but who knows? To have abandoned it like this and abandon all the, again, the Afghan people who have believed what the prospect was for a more liberal society, not one that's made like a Jeffersonian democracy like we have, but some basic liberalizations that are consistent with human dignity, I think it's lost.

Padmore: I want to switch topics to COVID. What is your message to those who are still hesitant to get vaccinated while recognizing that they might have legitimate concerns?

Congressman Fortenberry: Yeah, so it's two things. One is, look, I made a decision early on to get vaccinated. And it was important that I do that, and at the same time, I've urged public health officials, as well as politicians, the more authoritarian sounding, all of this is and the more demanding, it takes away the rightful consideration of individuals who might have underlying health conditions that prevents them from accepting the risk of the vaccine. Other people have sincerely held reasons and beliefs. Most people are getting the vaccine. And I think that's been very helpful towards controlling the spread. And I think it's an important public health message to get the vaccine, but it has to be done respectfully, respectful of individual medical profiles, and respectful of individuals' conscience.

Padmore: I want to talk a little bit about agriculture, something you might know a little bit about. The 30 X 30 plan was something that was brought up in your town hall. And there's a lot of concern, I did a story about this, especially from rural folks that it is a land grab and that the government will some way coerce, or by force take land from rural residents. Do you want to clarify exactly what you know about the 30 X 30 plan and where you stand on it?

Congressman Fortenberry: When you have a pronouncement out of Washington, a centralized policy that is not translated well, it appears that it does frighten people-that this is another form of federal land grab for an abstract idea. Now with that said, we're the first stewards of the land here. We're the first conservationists because so much of our land is farmland and ranch land, about 97%. What, we don't want to do is take away voluntary mechanisms by which there is more choice of a landowner if they want to do something innovative around conservation like the Conservation Reserve Program, or certain easements and set-asides, if you will, on fragile land, but we will resist, obviously, a heavy-handed mandate from the federal government. There was a vote on this in the Appropriations Committee this summer, so I voted against it. But I don't want to lose the spirit of actually being a leader in innovative policy that promotes conservation and sustainability.