EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a publishing partnership between the Richmond Register and Eastern Progress
Longtime Kentucky Senator and United States Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell visited Madison County on Wednesday for several stops.
His first stop was at the EKU Center for the Arts where he was the guest speaker for the Richmond Chamber of Commerce's Business at Noon lunch. Local leaders, dignitaries, and community members were all present to hear the senator speak about several topics which are a priority not only to the nation, but at the local level as well.
The first topic he addressed, was the United States withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan.
Just this week, it was announced early in July by President Joe Biden he would withdraw troops after two decades of the US occupation in the Middle East.
While he stated previously the Taliban takeover was unlikely, he was proven wrong on Sunday when the Taliban took over the city of Kabul.
McConnell said when he accepted the offer to speak at the business luncheon, he did not plan to speak on such matters. However, because of the ''timeliness," he thought it pertinent.
"The catastrophe in Afghanistan is something that needs to be discussed for all of us to think about," he said.
He said no matter your age, most knew why the country went to war with Afghanistan. However, he said the US did not hope for it to turn into a "western-style Jeffersonian Democracy."
"We went there to prevent Afghanistan from being a haven for terrorists who attacked us on 9/11," he shared.
While he said it was true the United States had been there a long time, this operation is one that has taken an "extraordinary amount of money."
He said now the challenge lay with not only getting the American troops out of the country, but also the allies.
"Here's the situation, we have 15,000 airmen around Afghanistan trying to figure out how to get to the airport. The airport is secure, it is the getting there that is a heck of a challenge," he said.
He stated plainly that by any objective standard, this has been "an unmitigated disaster."
"It is a stain on the reputation of our country," McConnell said. "Even though we have a pretty partisan environment in Congress, I think it is noteworthy that it is the Democratic Chairmen of the Armed Services Committee, the Intelligence Committee and the Foreign Agencies Committee are all expressing concern about how this going to end."
From here, he said it is unknown how many troops it would take to not only get American troops out of the country, but also those that work with America, are loyal to America, and endangered.
"Whatever needs to be done, the administration needs to do it," McConnell said. "The irony of it is it is going to cost us way more, way more, just to get our own people and Afghan allies than it would have been to stay the course with the light touch we had — 2,500 troops."
However, he said, looking at the current situation, he wasn't sure the Biden Administration "could organize a two-car funeral."
Senator McConnell then transitioned to speak about another seemingly controversial topic: vaccinations and COVID-19.
He recently made a public service announcement which encouraged vaccines, and claimed he had been "outspoken" recently in promotion inoculations.
"Regardless of the debate that you hear about masks, the key is pretty obvious," he said of fighting COVID-19. "Vaccines, vaccines, vaccines."
McConnell addressed recent statistics and shared 97% of those in the nation that are battling the coronavirus in hospitals were those who were unvaccinated Americans.
"It's not opinion, it's a fact," he stressed.
He implored those in attendance to also encourage others who had not done so, to get their vaccine and promote it to others.
Blue Grass Chemical Activity Pilot Plant Training Center
Following his speech and lunch at the EKU Center, McConnell made his way to a BGCAPP training facility which teaches those involved with demilitarization of chemical weapons how to operate the machinery to do so.
When McConnell first took his position as senator in 1984, the destruction and demilitarization of chemical weapons were one of his first tasks to address.
Wednesday, nearly four decades later, he viewed the facility and toured alongside some of the demilitarization project's greatest minds and leaders.
This facility is a training center to practice processing empty rocket warheads via rocket line equipment. Real munitions are destroyed at locations on the Main Plant.
With this machinery, about 10 munitions can be processed within an hour to help them complete their goal.
According to Candace Coyle, site project manager, the team is on track to demilitarize the weapons by their deadline of December 2023.
McConnell said he was impressed with the progress of the operation which he has followed his entire time in office.
"It's been a long march," he began. "Right after I was sworn in 1985 this was one of the first things that dropped in my lap. We knew it was going to be a long process in those early days. ... In the early days we got into an argument with the Army of how to dispose. Fortunately we were able to work that out and move forward."
He said the progress was gratifying.
"If you are a football fan, you would say we are in the red-zone, or the last 20 yards before you get into the end zone," the senator said. "We are looking forward to having this completed, and of course, the big question is where do we go from there? We are working with local people in the Army trying to identify private sector possibilities in the wake of finishing the 'demil' project and if there is any way I can be constructive partner in that."
He added the chemical weapons should have never been developed in the first place, but what they learned was the weapons were just dangerous, if not more, to the people creating and storing them, than anyone who might use one.
"You ended up having stockpiles that were just as dangerous to us as they were a potential enemy, plus, widespread reluctance to use them in a conflict," McConnell said. "One of the great mistakes, you could say, was to have developed these weapons in the first place. The good news is we are almost to the end of the history of chemical weapons."