Democrats in Congress growing antsy over Afghanistan

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 11, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Congress will examine next week the future of American military involvement in Afghanistan, a future that many key lawmakers hope won't include sending more U.S. troops than President Barack Obama already has committed.

"There's a significant number of people in the country, and I don't know the exact percentages, that have questions about deepening our military involvement in Afghanistan," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Friday.

Levin's warning, combined with similar carefully worded comments recently from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., send a strong signal to Obama that many Democrats are wary of escalating the U.S. role in Afghanistan. Indeed, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — which will hold two hearings on Afghanistan next week_ is urging discussion of a "flexible timeline" for ending American involvement there.

The president is weighing whether to increase U.S. forces in the country. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, submitted an assessment of the war to the White House last month, and he's widely expected to ask soon for tens of thousands of new U.S. troops. Three options that are being discussed are 5,000, 21,000 or 45,000 more troops.

It's unclear when Obama will make a decision, although the White House says that he won't be rushed.

"Getting it right is of the utmost importance to the president," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday. "There isn't an imminent decision now. I think it will be many, many weeks of assessment and evaluation."

Under a plan announced last spring, Obama already is boosting U.S. combat troop strength there this year by 17,500, plus 4,000 military trainers for Afghan forces. That will bring the total number of U.S. troops there to 68,000 by the end of this year.

Senior military leaders acknowledge that the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse. Last month was the deadliest yet of the nearly eight-year-old war.

Against that backdrop, the Obama administration is trying to halt the erosion of support on Capitol Hill. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who's considered a hawk on Afghanistan, met Friday with two leading Republicans, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, as well as with a hawkish independent who caucuses with the Democrats, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

Officials used Friday's eighth anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, which al Qaida planned from its former base in Afghanistan, to underscore the need to continue the effort. Al Qaida now is based in Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials have said.

"We have a very crucial stake in Afghanistan. If we need any reminder of it, it comes today," said the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. She said it was "frankly, premature" to make judgments on the new strategy that Obama announced in March.

Lawmakers are in a thorny position because the war is increasingly unpopular. "I don't think there is a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in the Congress," Pelosi said Thursday.

Lawmakers hope to use a series of events to clarify the administration's position, and perhaps forge consensus on how to proceed.

On Tuesday, Levin's committee will question Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a hearing on his nomination to another term.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will examine the U.S. Afghanistan policy. The chairman of that panel, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., hasn't yet stated his position on a possible troop increase.

For now, Democratic congressional leaders are reluctant to split publicly with Obama on the issue. Feingold said that setting a timetable for withdrawal would "undercut the misperception of the U.S. as an occupying force." Like Levin, however, he hasn't yet formally proposed legislation, because Democrats are being cautious.

"What I am saying is — and I'm saying it carefully but, I hope, clearly — that we should complete the planned number of additional combat forces that are planned to go in for this year," Levin said, "but that what we must do if we're going to succeed in Afghanistan is to focus on the strength of the Afghan military forces and to do it in a way that we have not yet done it."

He explained why Friday in a Senate floor speech: "The larger our own military footprint there, the more our enemies can seek to drive a wedge between us and the Afghan population, spreading the falsehood that we seek to dominate a Muslim nation."

Afterward, Republicans rallied to support the war.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., urged Democrats, "Don't give in to the pundits. Don't give in to the left wing that has declared defeat in Afghanistan as they did so vocally in Iraq."

Levin plans no legislative move on troop policy at the moment, nor does Feingold. Senate Majority Leader Reid is urging Democrats to "wait until the president makes up his mind as to what he thinks should be done. And then we'll have ample opportunity to do that."

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