Will New Congress Revive Afghan War Debate
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As a new Congress begins work this week, we're going to look at one big national question that has not been widely debated on Capitol Hill. That's the war in Afghanistan, now in its 10th year.
President Obama says American troops will be there for at least four more years. Yet there's been almost no formal discussion in Congress about the merits of the president's war plan.
Here's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.
(Soundbite of protestors)
TOM BOWMAN: More than a hundred protesters marched in front of the White House a few weeks ago, carrying signs and calling for American troops to come home from Afghanistan. Among them was Daniel Ellsberg, one of the famous dissidents from the Vietnam era.
Mr. DANIEL ELLSBERG (Former U.S. Military Analyst): I know that people here understand that this war is as hopeless and wrong as the war we participated in in Vietnam and that it's not going to end by a presidential initiative. It will only be because the American public has awakened to their responsibilities and the realities of this war.
BOWMAN: Or if the new Congress sees it as its responsibility to look more closely at the war. So far Capitol Hill has been something of a bystander in an Afghanistan debate that has largely been held behind closed doors. It was at the White House and Pentagon where competing troop levels and war strategies were tossed around. It's at the CIA where recent intelligence reports are raising doubts about success. It's at military headquarters in Afghanistan, where military reviews point to battlefield victories. In Congress? Only a handful of members are pressing for more debate as the cost in blood and treasure rises in Afghanistan.
One of them is Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
Representative JIM MCGOVERN (Democrat, Massachusetts): We've lost some of the finest men and women in our country. We're going broke because we're borrowing all the money to pay for the war and we're not talking about it in Washington. It's unbelievable.
BOWMAN: McGovern and about a dozen other House members, including Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina, want a vigorous open debate, in a congressional hearing room this year, something that hasn't happened.
Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state under President Bush when the Afghan war began, says Afghanistan has largely been set aside as an issue.
Mr. RICHARD ARMITAGE (Former Deputy Secretary of State): I certainly noticed a lack of debate during the campaign, in November. I was shocked by it but domestic issues ruled out.
BOWMAN: Domestic issues like unemployment, the economy, health care. When it started, there was overwhelming support for the Afghanistan invasion. Nine years later, more than half the population thinks the war's not worth fighting. Still, there are no powerful constituencies to oppose the war.
President Obama campaigned against the Iraq war, so Democrats are largely siding with the president on Afghanistan. And Republicans are generally more hawkish on national security. Add to that, the absence of a military draft, which helped fuel the debate over Vietnam.
Former Deputy Secretary Of State Richard Armitage says that dynamic could begin to change in the coming months.
Mr. ARMITAGE: I think towards the spring, as people start getting more serious about both casualties and the deficit, that there will be a - somewhat more discussion about this issue.
BOWMAN: The deficit. The conservative Tea Party lawmakers, who arrive on Capitol Hill, together with progressives like Congressman McGovern, might find common cause in ending the war in Afghanistan. Or maybe spur the types of hearings that took place in 1971 - six years after U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam.
Senator J. William Fulbright organized a month-long series of hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He reviewed a half dozen separate proposals to end the war.
Senator J. WILLIAM FULBRIGHT (Democrat, Arkansas): I hope that the hearings will result in greater public understanding of the policy alternatives available and positive congressional action to end American participation in the war.
BOWMAN: Fulbright found support from a 27-year-old Vietnam veteran named John Kerry, the man who now leads the same committee. The young Kerry was blunt in his criticism.
Senator John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts): Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be, and these are his words, the first president to lose a war.
BOWMAN: Senator Kerry is not saying Afghanistan is a mistake, though he did ask some basic questions last summer.
Senator KERRY: Ultimately, we need a better understanding of exactly what the definition of success is in Afghanistan, and what an acceptable state looks like there and how achievable it is.
BOWMAN: In the New Year, Kerry plans on holding what he calls a robust series of hearings on Afghanistan's government and its security forces.
BOWMAN: Congressman McGovern is suggesting another topic.
Rep. MCGOVERN: And I believe very strongly that what we need to be talking about is an exit strategy. How do we extricate ourselves from this mess?
BOWMAN: For his part, Richard Armitage and other defense analysts are coming up with possible alternative strategies, if he says there's no real progress in Afghanistan this year.
Among the options: A more limited U.S. mission to go after terrorists and train Afghan forces. That kind of debate, Armitage says, is the one Congress should have.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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