Even hawkish Rep. Dicks seeks end to Afghan war

McClatchy NewspapersJune 16, 2011 

WASHINGTON — If you need proof that the tide on Capitol Hill has turned against the war in Afghanistan, Exhibit A is Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington state, the top-ranked House Democrat in charge of the Pentagon's budget.

After nearly half his lifetime as a congressman, Dicks, 70, has established a reputation as a hawk, usually a reliable vote in backing a war or a strong defense budget.

But now he says he's had enough.

As more Democrats unite in pushing President Barack Obama for a quick end to the decade-long war in Afghanistan, Dicks has joined the chorus, saying the nation can no longer afford the $10 billion monthly price tag and that Congress needs to spend more at home.

"I just think that the American people would like to see this thing end sooner rather than later," Dicks said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office this week.

Dicks, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee and the defense appropriations subcommittee, knows a thing or two about money.

As Republicans work on their 2012 spending plan, he's spending long days trying to stave off cuts that he says will hit hard at the neediest, including food aid for pregnant women and their children, financial aid for low-income college students, community development grants, food inspection programs and agencies that help the poor.

"I've seen more vividly these cuts that we're making," Dicks said.

Dicks' change of heart is turning heads at the Capitol, with some of his colleagues citing it as a clear sign that the U.S. has reached a turning point in the war.

"People noticed," said George Behan, Dicks' chief of staff.

On Wednesday, 27 senators, including two Republicans, sent a letter to Obama urging "a shift in strategy and the beginning of a sizeable and sustained reduction of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan," beginning next month.

When the Appropriations Committee met Tuesday to take up a defense spending bill, Dicks told his colleagues that the administration "has to accelerate the withdrawal" of forces from Afghanistan. And he said the idea of funding the war at current levels for the next three years "is not going to be realistic."

"Are we going to take care of the people who are unemployed or are we going to continue to do nation building in Afghanistan?" he asked the committee. "I think that's a choice we're all going to have to consider in the days ahead."

Dicks, whose district includes a big military presence, said he fears that funding for homeland security will be shortchanged in the 2012 budget, leaving the country in a weaker position.

He said that a political settlement to the war, involving Pakistan, India and other countries in the region, "would be the best outcome," and that the time to try to negotiate one is now.

"The first thing you'd want to try to get is a ceasefire. ... A number of Republicans have talked with me and said, 'We're getting to be where you are on this,'" Dicks said.

Dicks said he's speaking out now in an attempt to influence the president, who's expected to make an announcement next month on the size and timing of his plan to scale down the war.

Dicks said he decided it was time for a speedy exit after Osama bin Laden was killed.

"First of all, we've been there a long time — 10 years," Dicks said. "And our goal was to weaken al Qaida and overthrow the Taliban who were in charge, and we have done that."

Dicks also said that Hamid Karzai, whom Dicks has met with several times, is not "a worthy president" for Afghanistan.

"He's condemning the United States all the time," Dicks said. "And we're over there spending billons trying to help him and build up his military and police force and build up his country. We're doing a lot more there, and without any appreciation."

END THIS WAR

The 27 senators who signed a letter to President Barack Obama urging "a shift in strategy and the beginning of a sizeable and sustained reduction of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan," beginning next month, were:

Max Baucus (D-Mont.)

Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)

Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.)

Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)

Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)

Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)

Ben Cardin (D-Md.)

Kent Conrad (D-N.D.)

Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)

Al Franken (D-Minn.)

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)

Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)

Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)

Mary Landrieu (D-La.)

Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)

Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)

Mike Lee (R-Utah)

Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)

Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)

Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)

Tom Udall (D-N.M.)

Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)

Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)

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