WASHINGTON – While other candidates for Congress have spent the past six months wooing voters and donors, former Rep. Charles Djou of Hawaii took a detour through Afghanistan where he was part of a team responsible for interrogating suspected Taliban fighters and determining who should be detained or freed.
Congress is made up of numerous veterans who served during war time.
But the Republican Djou represents a rare instance when a former lawmaker went from the partisan skirmishes on Capitol Hill to the real battlefront. Djou, a major in the Army Reserves, returned recently from a stint in Afghanistan with what he described as a better perspective on what's important in life and politics. He'll apply that perspective on the campaign trail as he attempts to persuade voters in Hawaii's 1st Congressional District to send him back to Washington.
Djou's stint in Afghanistan comes with obvious disadvantages and advantages to a campaign. He could not engage in political activities while on active duty, so he was pretty much out of the public eye for six months. However, his service will certainly appeal to many voters regardless of their political affiliation, which is important in a Democratic stronghold like Hawaii. Djou knew he would be going to Afghanistan when he made the decision to run and believed he would be back in time to run a competitive campaign.
Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa defeated Djou in the November 2010 general election by 6 percentage points and will likely face him in a November rematch.
While voters are now focused on jobs and the economy, Djou said he will implore them not to forget about the troops in Afghanistan. He is urging President Barack Obama not to draw down the number of troops too quickly for the sake of those soldiers who remain.
"I recognize that the war on terrorists is not as hot an issue as it was in 2010 and certainly 2008, but I do have a unique perspective and I do think it's important," Djou said in his first interview since his return. "I have a unique vantage point in explaining to the American people not to forget about those soldiers in harm's way."
Djou was deployed in the latter stages of the military's buildup in Afghanistan. While those in the National Guard frequently are deployed as a unit, Djou — as a reservist — was plucked to fill an individual position within the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan.
The unit is based in the Kandahar province in Afghanistan, a particularly dangerous province where the Taliban and the opium trade are at their strongest. While Afghan forces have taken charge of security in wide swaths of northern and western Afghanistan, southern Afghanistan is still volatile territory.
When troops encountered suspected Taliban fighters, it was Djou's responsibility to vet suspects and determine whether they were a threat to U.S. forces. He estimated that he dealt with more than 100 detainees. Decisions were often difficult.
"A good chunk of them, I made the decision to let 'em go," Djou said. "Part of that is we didn't have good evidence. Part of that is because when you're in a counter-insurgency environment, you want to be extra cautious. You don't want to detain a local villager, who really is innocent, and then basically just anger the village and the family and turn all of them against Americans."
At times, Djou participated in patrols. A convoy he was in came under fire in November, and Djou said an insurgent tried to shoot him in the back but missed. Djou was awarded the Combat Action Badge after the skirmish.
Djou returned to the United States amid rising tensions stemming from the burning of Qurans by U.S. soldiers. He said he supported Obama's proposal for the Afghan people to be in charge of their own security by the end of 2014, but he's nervous that the tensions will speed the drawdown. If the drawdown is severe, the U.S. should just bring the troops home immediately.
"I'm worried we'll resort to a halfway strategy that is not enough to win but only enough to lead to more American casualties," Djou said.
Djou said that when he talked to Afghan villagers, he got the impression they understood what was at stake if the Taliban resumed control. But they're caught in a quandary, he said. By siding against the Taliban, they risk losing everything when U.S. forces leave. Still, he's not advocating maintaining troops there beyond 2014.
"We're crushing the Taliban, but we can't just crush them," Djou said. "We have to afford time to make sure that the schools we built are successful, that the community centers and police stations aren't just put in place but are developed and get solid roots in the community."
Djou, 41, recognizes that he has an uphill climb in returning to Congress. He won a special election to replace Neal Abercrombie when the two Democratic candidates in the race, Hanabusa and Ed Case, split the vote. Djou won a May 2010 election by getting about 39 percent of the vote. He served until January 2011.
The presence of a native son on the November ballot won't help Djou.
"Obama will get people to come out and vote and a lot of those people will come out and pull the D lever," John Hart, chairman of the Hawaii Pacific University Department of Communication, said of Democratic candidates. "The challenge for any Republican is, 'How do you get people to cross over and make you the exception?' I think for Charles it will be incredibly difficult."
But Djou said that elections in Hawaii often hinge on local issues. He said that stumbles by Abercrombie, whose popularity ratings plummeted in 2011, could help him win over dissatisfied Democratic voters and independents. While a member of the Honolulu City Council, Djou also opposed funding for construction of a light rail system that has divided the community because of its projected costs.
Chuck Freedman, communications director for the Democratic Party in Hawaii, said people in Hawaii vote on the merits of the individual, so he doubted that Abercrombie's woes would help Republicans.
"Charles Djou probably better be more concerned with the popularity of the president out here, since he's running for a federal office," Freedman said.
Associated Press writer Treena Shapiro contributed to this report from Honolulu.