U.S. Troop Surge Faces Tough Scrutiny By Congress

The recent announcement by President Obama of plans to deploy up to 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan in the next several months is reverberating in political circles — both in the U.S and throughout the world. The White House is now challenged with winning over opponents of the plan in Congress. Pamela Gentry, Washington Bureau chief for BET Networks, and Abderrahim Foukara, Washington Bureau chief for Al Jazeera news channel, discuss the troop increase and its imprint on the Obama presidency.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We've been talking about how President Obama's plan will affect the people of Afghanistan but the president will need more than just troops and money to make his plan succeed. He'll also need a great deal of political capital in the U.S. and diplomatic capital around the world. He talked about that in his speech last night. Here's a short clip.

President BARACK OBAMA: Of course, this burden is not ours alone to bear. This is not just America's war. Since 9/11, al-Qaida's safe havens have been the source of attacks against London and Amman and Bali. The people and governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are in danger, and the stakes are even higher within the nuclear-armed Pakistan because we know that al-Qaida and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them.

MARTIN: Joining me now in our Washington, D.C. studio are journalist Pamela Gentry - she's Washington Bureau chief and senior political producer for BET Networks, that's Black Entertainment Television - and Abderrahim Foukara, Washington Bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. Welcome to you both. Welcome back, I should say.

Ms. PAMELA GENTRY (Washington Bureau Chief, Senior Political Producer, BET Networks): Welcome. Good to see you.

Mr. ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA (Washington Bureau Chief, Al Jazeera International): Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Pam Gentry, let me start with you. As you know, there's been tremendous dissatisfaction with the situation in Afghanistan, particularly in the president's own party. And you can see in the blogosphere and in the columns leading up to this speech a lot of people saying it's really just -particularly on the political left, it's time to get out now. Do you think the president made an effective case for why the U.S. not only needs to stay in Afghanistan, but needs to increase its military effort there? And what are people saying this morning?

Ms. GENTRY: Well, I think that was his goal. I mean, he started his speech with a brief history lesson, reminding everyone why we went to Afghanistan. I think he understands it's been shrouded in everything that's been going on in Iraq. So it was sort of to remind people why we were in Afghanistan. So I think he was effective there.

I don't think he was every going to sway - there was nothing he could say last night for folks who want to see us pull out, who want the war to be over, to just - who are anti-war. I mean, there is a segment of our population and historically in our country who are anti-war. So he is not - he was not shooting for that group. And very quickly, Representative Barbara Lee got out a statement last night, saying, you know, I think it's the wrong decision. It's the wrong direction. I voted it against it eight years ago. I'm still against it.

MARTIN: Well, she was the sole vote against the Afghanistan war eight years ago.

Ms. GENTRY: The sole vote in the Congress. In the Congress, the sole vote. So my point is you're not going to sway those - that group of people. What I think he did do last night, though, is he did get some message to those people who are still on the fence as to why we should be there and why we should stay. And I think that one of the things that he's getting criticized about is this July 2011 date, saying that we're going to start a transition, was directed to that group of people.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, what's been the international reaction?

Mr. FOUKARA: Well, I think what a lot of people, at least in the Middle East, got out of the speech is there was - there were parts of the speech where President Obama actually sounded like President George Bush, minus the gung-ho cowboy ingredient. And while the absence of that ingredient may have provided some comfort to people in that part of the world as to what are President Obama's intentions, and most importantly, what his ability to deal with the issues of that part of the world is actually going to look like, a lot of people will look at Iraq and say, OK, well, he's obviously decided to pull out of Iraq. Is Iraq the good, stable, solid country that a lot of Iraqis and a lot of Americans had hoped it would be by now, now that the president has announced the withdrawal of - or firmed up the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq? And the answer is no.

So a lot of people in the region will transpose that to Afghanistan, and they'll say OK, he's talking about 18 months now for transitioning, as he described it, control to the Afghans themselves. But will that necessarily mean that in 18 months' time, the Afghan government will necessarily be able to hold the country together? If you transpose from Iraq, then your conclusion is that Hamid Karzai will not be able to hold the country together once the Americans start to transition.

MARTIN: Do you think other countries, particularly in that region, share the president's analysis of the issue? For example, last night, he talked a lot about Pakistan and the need to stay in Afghanistan, in part to prevent Pakistan from becoming a disaster. Let me just play a short clip of that. Here it is.

Pres. OBAMA: We're in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan, and that's why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border.

MARTIN: Do you think that other people in the region share that analysis, that that is the compelling case for why there needs to be an American present? And as, of course, you know, in the United States, many, you know, observers are divided on that point. But what's the view in the region?

Mr. FOUKARA: I think while in some way he has been able probably to give comfort to people in the Muslim world, for example, that although he's decided on an increase of 30,000 troops, additional troops to Afghanistan, the intention is not to occupy a Muslim country.

Ultimately, he wants to get the United States out of there, as he said. There's also a message to Pakistan. Pakistan is obviously incredibly worried about the role that India may play in Afghanistan down the road. So he's telling the Pakistanis, look, we're not - we are committed to Afghanistan, and we are committed to the viability of Pakistan down the road - and read between the lines - in its conflict with India.

The ironic thing about the speech is that while at least here in the United States may have clarified the case for some of his constituency, in the region, it may have even muddied the case a little bit further because people don't know what the United States is doing and is trying to do in Afghanistan. They don't know whether they actually want the United States to pull out of Afghanistan or to stay there to hold it together. So I don't think the case in the region is necessarily any clearer now that we've heard from him.

MARTIN: He didn't paint a picture of what victory looks like. What does winning look like? Pam Gentry, a final thought from you. The last Washington Post-ABC news poll found that 52 percent of Americans support the war in Afghanistan, despite the fact that we see kind of a growing chorus of criticism from political leaders, particularly on the Democratic side. So I want to ask what happens next, and how do you think members of Congress, members of the House all up for reelection next year, sort of a third of the Senate up for reelection next year, how will they respond, do you think, in the�

Ms. GENTRY: It's going to be tough, because they're battling two things. They have to support the troops, and they have to support the overall mission because we have men and women over there fighting. So they can't be anti-troop levels, but then they can't actually be anti-war because they all voted for it, except for one. So I think it's going to be very tricky in 2010.

But what I do think has happened now is that he's put it out there. He's made the decision, whether everyone agrees with it or not. They've got to decide now, if they're Democrats, if they're going to be with him or against him. And if they're Republicans, they're going to have to walk that really chalk line as to whether they've been pretty much - this was their war. I mean, this war was started with a Republican president. They've got to somewhat support the president now that it's - has to finish it, and they all have to agree on what success is going to be. I doubt that's going to be easy, but I think it's going to be - it'll be interesting to see how people campaign.

MARTIN: Very briefly on this, speaking of campaigning, the president often follows up a major speech with a campaign of sorts, sort of travel and giving mini-speeches in support of the overall theme. Is that planned here? What else is going to do to follow up this very significant event?

Ms. GENTRY: Well, there are quite a few meetings planned at the White House with other members. There's a lot of phone calls being made to other foreign leaders. I think that's to get more troops. So I think that he's now going to have to do some diplomacy, as well as some domestic tours.

MARTIN: You mean more political tricks.

Ms. GENTRY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Right. Pam Gentry, Washington Bureau chief and senior political producer for BET Networks. Abderrahim Foukara, Washington Bureau chief of Al Jazeera International. I thank you both once again for being with us.

Mr. FOUKARA: Good to be with you.

Ms. GENTRY: Thank you.

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