Members of three recent congressional delegations to the war region of Afghanistan say their taxpayer-funded trips offered them an extraordinary opportunity to see first-hand how the war effort is developing, to cement ties with foreign leaders, and to thank U.S. troops for their service.

“I am confident that the experiences that I had abroad will make me a better member of the Senate Armed Services Committee,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in a recent speech.  Collins said the trip allowed her “to better understand the complexity of the battle against terrorism in which our nation is now engaged.”

But some Congress watchers say "codels" serve as nothing more than extended photo-ops for members seeking re-election or who aspire to higher office.

“Taking senators and representatives abroad are costly exercises to begin. Taking them into a combat zone is even more expensive,” observed Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers’ Union. “I think it was more for constituent-value than for fact finding.”

Collins, who faces a potentially competitive re-election bid this fall, joined a trip led by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., two figures frequently named to be considering a 2004 presidential run. Two other delegations this week were led by Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., and Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who observers say is also eyeing the White House.

“These guys wanted a camera pointed on them looking presidential,” said John Samples, a political analyst with the Cato Institute. “With McCain, Daschle and Lieberman it was pure presidential politics, paid for by the taxpayers.”

Not so, say the lawmakers who made the trek. They say the trip gave them the rare chance to see the landscape in which the United States has been conducting a three-month long bombing raid against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It also allowed them to meet with Afghanistan's Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and other regional leaders.

“They now have an appreciation impossible to gain from leafing through a National Geographic,” said Fred Downey, a spokesman for Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who led a nine-member delegation to Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Oman.

“It's one thing to understand something intellectually, it’s another to understand the people and personalities in the places where they live. In fact, there’s no substitute for being there,” he added.

Downey said all the members on the codel serve on the Senate Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees.

“All have a direct and personal responsibility for this issue,” he said.

But considering the numerous press conferences, sound-bites and photographs — many of which are already splashed across members’ Web sites already — Samples is skeptical that some of the leaders’ aims were purely noble.

“Imagine if they could go over to show their support for the troops but for some reason there could be no photographs, no news reports or no pictures of them standing there on the naval carrier with the troops? Would they still be as eager to go? I just don’t know the answer,” Samples said.

Bill Allison, a spokesman for the Center of Public Integrity, disagreed.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if these things showed up in campaign literature and in photos,” Allison said. “But on the flip side, Congress should exercise an oversight role and I don’t think it hurts to go out there to see what is going on in the war effort first hand.”

“Obviously, challengers running against them in an election would never have this kind of exposure, but there still  is a legitimate reason for them to go.”