Washington Democrats not sold on Obama's war decision

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has yet to convince Washington state's Democratic lawmakers that additional troops should be deployed to Afghanistan.

Though most may eventually end up supporting the White House, for now they remain skeptical about the nation's growing engagement in that volatile nation.

Asked whether it is a mistake to deploy 30,000-35,000 additional U.S. soldiers, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said, "Members have a lot of questions."

Asked about Obama's speech last week at West Point, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said, "He did not close the deal."

Since September, three of the state's lawmakers — Smith, along with Democratic Reps. Norm Dicks and Brian Baird — have visited Afghanistan and Pakistan. They met with top U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials, Afghani and Pakistani leaders and troops in the field, including some from Fort Lewis.

They were briefed on al Qaida, the Taliban, the fighting in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan, two anhydrous ammonia plants in Pakistan that produce chemicals found in IEDs used against American soldiers, corruption in the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the ties of Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency to terrorists.

The three came back with plenty of questions about the U.S. role in the region. Their concerns persist even as Obama seeks congressional support for his new Afghan policy. The doubts center on three issues:

_ Already weakened by a suspect election, will Karzai be able to rein in rampant corruption and drug trafficking and assemble a government capable of gaining popular support and defeating the Taliban?

_ With terrorists not recognizing international borders, is Pakistan really committed to wiping out the safe havens the terrorists have established astride the country's border with Afghanistan? And will Pakistan's already fragile but nuclear-armed democracy survive.

_ How to pay for the roughly $30 billion surge in U.S. forces headed to Afghanistan without relying on the budget tricks the Bush administration used to fund the war in Iraq?

"I don't have an answer," Dicks said of where to find the additional funding. "I am open to suggestions."

Not surprisingly, the state's three Republican representatives support Obama's effort, though Rep. Dave Reichert was critical that Obama has set a deadline — July 2011 — for starting to withdraw U.S. forces.

Setting the deadline made it appear "we are biding our time and looking for a way out," Reichert said. "While setting an internal schedule and benchmarks are important, publicly establishing a timeline for withdrawal sends the wrong message to fellow Americans and the rest of the world."

Republican Rep. Doc Hastings has been at odds with Obama since he took office. But on Afghanistan, the two apparently agree.

Obama's announcement, "while long overdue, is a concrete step forward toward securing Afghanistan and in turn our nation," Hastings said. "Our military commanders on the ground know what it takes to provide for our men and women in uniform and I am encouraged the president took their advice to increase troop levels."

Usually after a major presidential address, lawmakers are quick to send out e-mails and press releases with their reactions. But in a sign of how difficult and tricky the issue is for Democrats, only three - Sen. Patty Murray and Reps. Rick Larsen and Jim McDermott - sent out press releases immediately after Obama's speech.

A Seattle liberal, McDermott is the most likely Democrat from Washington state to oppose the Afghanistan troop surge. Among the rest of the state's Democrats, Baird was the most critical of Obama's plan.

Baird was widely criticized by Democrats for supporting the Bush administration's surge of 40,000 additional troops into Iraq.

Now, Baird said, Congress needs to be assertive in requiring the White House to demonstrate tangible progress in the crackdown on corruption in the Afghan government and gaining additional Pakistani support in fighting the Taliban.

"I can't justify sending additional troops and money unless progress is made," Baird said.

Seven years ago, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray was one of only 23 senators who voted against the Iraq war. But Afghanistan is a different war, one Murray seems more inclined to support.

"While I still may have many questions about the specifics, the president has made a compelling and responsive case for redoubling the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan in order to protect the American people and bring our troops home," Murray said.

Murray said she has concerns about Karzai, Pakistan and paying for the Afghanistan surge. But she does not fault Obama for setting a deadline to start withdrawing troops.

"It sends a strong message to the region and our country that this is not a never-ending commitment," she said.

Cantwell, who supported the Iraq war resolution, has similar questions and is also worried that an effort to win the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people may not be a priority. She said Congress need more information on what the administration is planning. Lawmakers could always use spending bills to put conditions on White House's war plans, she said.

"We need to hold the administration accountable," she said.

Smith, Baird and Larsen all seem most inclined to support Obama.

As a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, Dicks will be in the middle of the search for the funding for the Obama surge.

"It would be irresponsible to walk out," Dicks said. But Dicks is concerned that 18 months might not be enough time to train 400,000 Afghan troops and police, and there are no guarantees that Karzai will crack down on corruption or that Pakistan will remain active in the border regions. "We have a long ways to go," Dicks said.

As chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that overseas Special Forces and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Smith also has a front row seat in the coming debate. Smith said he will probably support Obama, but he needs to listen a little more to administration officials before fully committing.

"We are trying to contain a real threat," Smith said of al Qaida. "I have always said we need a clear strategy and plan, and Obama gave us the beginning of them."

Though Smith said he would prefer other funding mechanisms, he could support a special war tax that would affect American families making as little as $30,000. Democratic leaders have ruled out such a surtax.

Larsen said Obama offered a comprehensive strategy to "stabilize Afghanistan and reduce security threats to America." Though he has the same concerns as others, Larsen said he believed the president was on the right track.

"We cannot allow Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven for terrorists to plan attacks against American and our allies," he said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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