Some Democrats Reluctant On Afghan Strategy

Democratic lawmakers awaiting President Obama's Afghanistan speech Tuesday have quite a dilemma: They want to support the president, but many don't much want to support a troop increase or continued funding for what they consider a no-win quagmire. Will the president's pursuit of the Taliban chase away fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill?

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On Capitol Hill, the president's fellow Democrats are deeply divided over the expected troop buildup. In fact, support for the new Afghan strategy is far stronger among Republican lawmakers that could leave the president counting on some of them to approve extra funding for the war.

NPRs David Welna has our story.

DAVID WELNA: Even before President Obama has unveiled his new Afghanistan plan, some congressional Democrats are calling it a big mistake. At a news conference this afternoon here at the capitol, Massachusetts House Democrat Jim McGovern said the president alone should not be calling the shots on Afghanistan.

Representative JAMES MCGOVERN (Democrat, Massachusetts): I would urge that before a single additional troop is sent, that Congress have a chance to fully debate this proposal and have an up or down vote. This is a big deal. This is a major escalation. And Congress has a major role to play.

WELNA: Alongside McGovern stood Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold. He, too, opposes sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Senator RUSSELL FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): I was just at our Democratic Conference lunch, and I spoke out on this. And I wont say who said what, but the number of people who joined me in expressing these very concerns was significant. Many members of my caucus, and I believe members of the Republican caucus, perhaps from different philosophical perspectives, will come to the same conclusion that this is a mistake to move in the direction of this huge troop buildup.

WELNA: Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointed to what she called serious unrest among House Democrats over the war. Today she was backed up on that by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

Representative STENY H. HOYER (Democrat, Maryland; House Majority Leader): There isnt any doubt that the speaker is correct in terms of their great reservations within our caucus about escalating our efforts.

WELNA: Even some of President Obamas closest allies in Congress are unwilling to pledge support. Senator Bob Casey is a Democrat from Pennsylvania.

Senator BOB CASEY (Democrat, Pennsylvania): We've got to be thoughtful and just as the president engaged in a multi-week review, I think the Congress needs to do the same as well.

WELNA: Is it good (unintelligible) Democrats this issue?

Sen. CASEY: Potentially it could, but we have to get it right and if that means there's a division, there's a division.

WELNA: The Senates number two Democrat Dick Durbin says he already sees a big split in his party over Afghanistan.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): There's no question, there's divided thinking. I mean, when the Iraq invasion came up, I was in the minority in my caucus of 23 who voted against it. So, I would expect there will be some on the Democratic side of the House and Senate who will oppose any troop increase.

WELNA: And do you think that the president is going to have to rely on at least some Republicans?

Sen. DURBIN: Yes, I think he will.

WELNA: But the president likely will rely even more on Democrats to approve more war funding, one of them is Senator John Tester of Montana.

Senator JOHN TESTER (Democrat, Montana): I dont want to see additional troops be put in harms away, but if its necessary to get the conflict over with quicker, then I can support it.

WELNA: And so would California Democrat Dianne Feinstein who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): You have to win, you have to have a strategy to win. And I think General McChrystal has presented a strategy to win. And well see what - how the president use it.

WELNA: Californias other Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, is far more skeptical. Views, She says she is heartened by reports the president will outline an exit strategy tonight.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): I think the exit strategy is very important and Im very glad that there is an exit strategy. But on the question of troops, additional troops, I just dont see how the numbers add up to send another 30,000 troops in there.

WELNA: Many Democrats also questioned spending more on an enormously costly war thats opposed by many Americans at a time of high unemployment and record deficits. But a chance to vote on additional war funding likely wont happen until next spring.

David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol.

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Officials: 30,000 More Troops To Afghanistan

W: Lance Cpl. Chris Garcia crosses an irrigation ditch in Afghanistan. i i

Lance Cpl. Chris Garcia and other members of Golf Company cross an irrigation ditch as the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment moves into Helmand province in July during a major offensive against the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
W: Lance Cpl. Chris Garcia crosses an irrigation ditch in Afghanistan.

Lance Cpl. Chris Garcia and other members of Golf Company cross an irrigation ditch as the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment moves into Helmand province in July during a major offensive against the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

David Gilkey/NPR

President Obama will announce plans to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan when he gives a nationally televised address Tuesday night, administration officials told NPR.

The president also is expected to lay out a rough time frame for the commitment of troops in the address, and is expected to outline their role: to secure population centers in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The increase will bring the total of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to more than 100,000.

Pentagon sources told NPR that Obama also has asked NATO member nations to contribute 5,000 more troops to the international force in Afghanistan.

After an exhaustive three-month strategic review, Obama will launch his second significant strategic escalation of the U.S. military's involvement in Afghanistan with Tuesday night's address.

A lengthy set of deliberations that included 10 high-level war council meetings has led to the speech, to be given at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

More broadly, Obama will be trying to convince a skeptical American public that the United States still has the time — and the capability — to reverse the deterioration in Afghanistan.

He presented his planned overhaul to his top advisers on Sunday and to close foreign allies on Monday. The White House portrayed the president's decision-making process as a rigorous and exhaustive effort to gear U.S. strategy more firmly toward the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The prime-time speech is a pivotal moment for the Obama White House, which needs to find some way to reverse a broad set of downward trends in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

Obama conducted many of his formal policy sessions in the White House Situation Room, speaking with generals in Kabul by secure videoconference. But the debate also played out in public through a constant stream of leaks, speculation and partisan sniping.

Obama's critics, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, decried him for "dithering" and showing weakness.

Adding Up The Afghan War

Estimates vary on the cost of the war to taxpayers. The Congressional Research Service says it totals $227 billion so far.

Adding Up The Afghan War

Perhaps a bigger factor in any delay was the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, where record levels of violence and a disputed election that threatened the legitimacy of the Afghan government punctuated the debate in Washington.

Either way, the origins of Obama's West Point speech stretch back much further than the launch of this latest strategic review in September.

The course was set as far back as April 2007, two months after then-Sen. Obama formally declared that he was running for president. The candidate told a Chicago audience that the U.S. had been distracted by Iraq and needed to focus more attention on Afghanistan, "where more American forces are needed to battle al-Qaida, track down Osama bin Laden and stop that country from backsliding toward instability."

It was a theme Obama would repeat throughout his campaign — an emphasis on Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, as the war America should be fighting to combat global terrorism.

By the final months of the Bush administration, security in Afghanistan had begun to deteriorate rapidly. In July 2008, the number of daily insurgent attacks in Afghanistan surpassed the number in Iraq for the first time.

President Obama holds meeting in the Situation Room. i i

President Obama holds a meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House on Nov. 23 — the last of 10 war council sessions with senior advisers as he contemplated a strategy shift in the war. Pete Souza/AP/The White House hide caption

itoggle caption Pete Souza/AP/The White House
President Obama holds meeting in the Situation Room.

President Obama holds a meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House on Nov. 23 — the last of 10 war council sessions with senior advisers as he contemplated a strategy shift in the war.

Pete Souza/AP/The White House

And by the time Obama was sworn in as president, the security situation was even worse. Obama immediately launched his first strategic review, a 60-day effort headed by Bruce Reidel, a former CIA official who had been one of his campaign advisers.

Not waiting for the results of that review, Obama in February announced the deployment of 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, for a total U.S. presence of 68,000 — where the force level now stands. The president said the bigger force was "necessary to stabilize the situation" in advance of Afghanistan's August presidential election.

As the White House was spending most of its time dealing with the global financial crisis and deepening recession, Obama announced the results of that first review in March. His new strategy called for additional resources for the Afghan effort, a more vigorous civilian effort to rebuild the country and a more concerted effort to train Afghan soldiers.

"We will shift the emphasis of our mission to training and increasing the size of Afghan security forces, so that they can eventually take the lead in securing their country," Obama said. "That's how we will prepare Afghans to take responsibility for their security, and how we will ultimately be able to bring our own troops home."

But less than two months later, with attacks still skyrocketing ahead of the August presidential election, Obama replaced his top general in Afghanistan. His new pick, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was chosen in large part for his expertise in counterinsurgency.

As the new U.S. commander, McChrystal was given time to conduct his own strategic assessment. The confidential report, dated Aug. 30, was a damning indictment of the current U.S. and NATO strategy, as well as the capability of the Afghan government.

Opinion: Is President Obama Getting It Right?

"The threat has grown steadily but subtly, and unchecked by commensurate counter-action, its severity now surpasses the capabilities of the current strategy," McChrystal wrote. "We cannot succeed simply by trying harder."

By this point, there had been nearly 13,000 enemy-initiated attacks during the first eight months of 2009 in Afghanistan, which was more than 2 1/2 times the number reported in the same period in 2008, according to Pentagon data.

Separately, McChrystal presented Obama with several options for boosting U.S. troop levels, endorsing a plan that called for deploying some 40,000 additional soldiers.

Another key part of the general's recommendation was to boost the U.S. military's partnership with Afghan security forces and the Afghan government.

But even as the White House formally launched its second strategic review to address McChrystal's recommendations, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was engulfed in a controversy over the alleged rigging of the August election.

The ballot-tampering was so blatant and widespread that it threatened to discredit the Kabul government completely.

The dispute dragged on until Karzai eventually agreed to a runoff election after being pressured by U.S. and Western diplomats. His rival, former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out before the vote.

Karzai was finally sworn in for his second term late last month, but his inauguration did little to dispel the deep doubts about his government's ability to tackle corruption and incompetence.

As Obama prepares his speech on Tuesday night, one of his many challenges will be to explain how the United States will plausibly be able to hand over more and more responsibility for Afghanistan's security to Karzai's partially discredited government.

Obama also wants to demonstrate that the U.S. is working toward a broad exit strategy without sparking fear in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere that Washington is planning an imminent withdrawal.

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