WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's plan to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan drew grudging praise Tuesday from Idaho's congressional delegation, which supports an escalation in the war there.
"I've said all along how I don't see how he could fail to listen to his commanders in the field," said Republican Sen. Mike Crapo. "If he's made the decision that Afghanistan is critical to our national security, and his commanders in the field are saying they need more strength and backup, I don't see how he ignores that. And it appears like he's not going to ignore that."
Additional forces aren't the only answer, however, said Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, who traveled to West Point Tuesday night to hear the speech with a bipartisan delegation of House members, all of whom had served in the armed forces. It requires an effort by the State Department, aid groups and intelligence agencies, Minnick said. "Military force is a portion of it but it's not the most important part of the endeavor," he said, adding that "military conquest is not practical or necessary."
"We should not be talking about changing the form of government, religion, their culture," he said. "These are things that we have to deal with them as they are, through existing power structures."
Minnick has long had an interest in Afghanistan, dating from his time in the Nixon Administration when he traveled there to help establish a program to persuade farmers to replace opium crops with winter wheat. Not a lot has changed, Minnick said.
"They're basically being bribed by al Qaida to provide sanctuary," he said of the Afghan people. "If we want to get them to stop harboring al Qaida, we need to make it in their self interest to cooperate with us rather than international terrorists."
Republican Sen. Jim Risch, who sits on both the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees and who has visited Afghanistan, said he was pleased the president's proposed troop buildup comes close to the 40,000 sought by U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan.
"When you send the warrior out into the field and you say 'what do you need to do this battle?' or 'what do you need to do the job?' you then need to give him the tools to do the job," Risch said.
However, Risch cautioned that he believes the U.S. objective needs to focus on ridding Afghanistan of its status as a safe haven for al Qaida. Like Minnick, he agreed the U.S. shouldn't be aiming to change the political culture of a nation where tribal governments and ethnic allegiances have been — and, he said, will likely continue to be — more powerful political forces than the central government.
"I want a clear, definable objective with an endgame. And when I talk about an endgame, I'm not necessarily talking about a date," Risch said. "I think I'm like most Americans. My bottom line is: I want America out of there. Now obviously we cannot just pick up and leave because if we do we're going to create a vacuum that al Qaida will again fill.
"What we need to be doing in order to achieve that end game is to have definitive objectives and milestones," he added. "It's got to be tied to removing al Qaida's influence from the country. We need to have the experts define the milestones as to what level of removal of al Qaida needs to be before we can safely pull out. Then leave the job to the CIA and the unmanned aircraft." Republican Rep. Mike Simpson said he, too, was pleased the president followed the broad outlines of the request made by McChrystal and other commanders on the ground. But he said he disliked setting a 2011 timetable for troop withdrawal — although the president has described it as a date when the Afghan people will have to begin assuming responsibility for their own security. "I think it kind of emboldens your enemy," Simpson said. "If I'm the Taliban or al Qaida, I'm going to say, 'let's find a cave and hunker down for 18 months.' I don't think you give away that type of strategy to your enemy."