2 Democrats Criticize Afghan War Strategy

Mounting casualties in Afghanistan have gotten the attention of the American public, and opposition to the war is growing. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan is expected to ask for more troops soon. Two Democrats in Congress, Rep. Jim McGovern of Mass. and Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisc., are concerned about President Obama's Afghan strategy.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The war in Afghanistan was the forgotten war - not anymore. Mounting casualties have gotten the attention of the American public and opposition to the war is growing. This is happening at a time when the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is expected to ask for more troops. In a moment, we'll hear how Secretary of Defense Robert Gates defends the Pentagon strategy in Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: But first, a closer look at some opponents of the war. Two Democrats in Congress are leading the criticism from the left. The men are Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman spoke to them about their concerns and what they would do differently.

TOM BOWMAN: Congressman McGovern worries that there is no end in sight in Afghanistan. There are only vague assurances. Here's what he means. General Stan McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, said this week - success is achievable. He called for a commitment, a unity of effort. Then there's Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the top envoy in the region. He defined success this way, we'll know it when we see it.

Representative JIM MCGOVERN (Democrat, Massachusetts): People talk about winning in Afghanistan or success in Afghanistan. I have no idea what that means.

BOWMAN: That's Congressman McGovern.

Rep. MCGOVERN: Nobody has defined it, there's no clarity. And I believe that you're going to send American men and women into war, there should be a clearly defined mission. And that means a beginning, a middle, a transition period and an end.

BOWMAN: McGovern wants President Obama to come up with what he calls an exit strategy for Afghanistan. He got a majority of House Democrats to support legislation in June, only to see it fail with strong Republican opposition. McGovern's still pushing for his exit strategy plan.

Rep. MCGOVERN: I'm not asking for a date certain, but what I'm asking for is some clarification on how all this comes to an end.

BOWMAN: Recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked how long it would take to subdue the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): It's unpredictable. Perhaps in a few years, but I think we have to show progress over the course of the next year.

BOWMAN: What do you think about that, a few years?

Senator RUSSELL FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): I don't think that's the way to go.

BOWMAN: That's Senator Russell Feingold. He is the leading opponent of the war in the Senate.

Sen. FEINGOLD: I think what we're doing now is counterproductive. Troop build ups are counterproductive. I think it is leading to pushing extremists into Pakistan, which is even more dangerous. So I think a flexible timetable is a way to begin the conversation about how do we get our troops reduced rather than building them up dramatically as the administration appears to be doing.

BOWMAN: Senator Feingold mentioned Pakistan, and that's a second big problem the opponents have with the current Afghan strategy. They think the war is being fought in the wrong country. Senator Feingold.

Sen. FEINGOLD: Al-Qaida is in Pakistan - the leaders of al-Qaida - everybody knows there's Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are there. So, you know, it's kind of a foolish thing to know where the enemy is and to spend your resources in a different place.

BOWMAN: Congressman Jim McGovern just got back from Afghanistan. He wasn't happy with the briefing he got from top American officials there.

Rep. MCGOVERN: They put up a slide for me and a call from President Obama about, you know, we are there to fight al-Qaida. Well, al-Qaida is now all in Pakistan. So I mean, you know, that slide needs to be amended.

BOWMAN: So that's the criticism. The war is being fought in the wrong place and there is no clear sense of what victory or even success looks like. The harder part is what to do, instead, in a country like Afghanistan, one of the poorest nations in the world with a corrupt government and a history of tribal rivalries.

Should the U.S. just start withdrawing a lot of their troops from Afghanistan? There are almost 68,000 there now.

Sen. FEINGOLD: We should have a discussion about what kind of a timeframe and what kind of benchmarks would be used to start bringing the troops home, yes.

BOWMAN: That was Senator Feingold again. Feingold would rely on a smaller American force - Green Berets, intelligence operatives and warplanes. He says that worked in Iraq.

Sen. FEINGOLD: Look how we knocked out the head of al-Qaida in Iraq. It was not by a ground troop effort. It was done by identifying, through intelligence, where the guy was and dropping a five hundred pound bomb on his house. There wasn't a battle.

BOWMAN: McGovern has a slightly different take. He would rely less on American troops and more on civilian aid workers to rebuild; and Afghan forces to fight.

Rep. MCGOVERN: But, I would have to be convinced that we're dealing with a government that really wants to take over the security of its country. We need a comprehensive plan.

BOWMAN: So far, General McChrystal hasn't released his plan for Afghanistan. It's still classified.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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