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Liberals Signal More Scrutiny on Afghan Policy

by Jonathan Allen

The silence of the doves is breaking.

An Iraqi boy looks at a US soldier patroling Baghdad's Sheikh Omar neighbourhood in March. Andrews of Win Without War said he is concerned about the prospect of the timeline for Iraq withdrawal slipping.(AFP/File/Ahmad al-Rubaye) So far, President Obama has had the benefit of the doubt for his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan from liberal Democratic allies in Washington. In part, that's because the most strident Iraq War critics in Congress have not been able to come to an agreement on how to approach his Afghanistan policy.

But with an $83.4 billion war supplemental spending bill that arrived on Capitol Hill without a single condition on the funding - and military leaders having hinted that withdrawal targets in Iraq could slip - liberal Democrats are starting to signal they want more out of their president than they are getting.

In some cases, that means outright opposition to his funding request. In others, it means wanting more details about the administration's plan for Afghanistan. In still others, it means pressure to include stronger legislative language to bring an end to American military operations in both countries.

Former Rep. Tom Andrews, D-Maine (1991-95), the head of an activist coalition called Win Without War, says Congress should use the supplemental to codify the existing Iraq withdrawal timeline - which would see the removal of "combat troops" from Iraq by August and all troops by 2011 - and establish one for Afghanistan.

"It needs to be clear to everyone  . . .  that the United States' commitment of combat forces is finite and that there is a time frame for the deployment of those troops and for the removal of those troops," said Andrews, who has been critical of Obama's Afghanistan policy in the recent past.

The debate over the supplemental will provide the first true test of how much Democratic doves will challenge a president of their own party on his war policy.

Top leaders in the House and Senate have both indicated they want to see some criteria for continued American military involvement in Afghanistan, but have stopped short - so far - of specifically calling for benchmarks in the supplemental, which they hope to complete by Memorial Day.

"Sen. Reid believes sound criteria are necessary to measure the effectiveness of both our strategy in Afghanistan and the resources we spend in that effort," said a statement from the office of Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev. "He expects that the administration and the Congress will consult extensively on how to best hold the Afghans accountable for taking responsibility for Afghanistan's future."

In lauding the president's supplemental release last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., alluded to such criteria.

"The president has presented a clear plan to end the war in Iraq and to defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan," she said. "In the coming weeks, Congress will carefully review the president's request and will engage in a dialogue with the administration on appropriate benchmarks to measure the success of our investments."

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said Tuesday that it is too early to predict whether the supplemental will have benchmarks for progress in Afghanistan because it was received during the spring recess that ends next week.

"Nothing's been decided because we have to come in and sit down and talk," Elshami said. "We have to figure out the best way forward and work with the administration on that."

There is little doubt that Obama will get most of what he wants, which makes the legislative details that much more important to Democrats who want to see the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan reduced as quickly as possible.

Information Vacuum?

Obama has promised to set out and fortify benchmarks for progress in Afghanistan, but has yet to release details of his plan.

Lawmakers who attended a classified briefing with administration officials two weeks ago say that they are no better informed for having gone.

"We got a classified briefing the other day that might as well have been an open briefing because I didn't learn anything," said Rep. Jim McGovern , D-Mass.

That's how Rep. Lynn Woolsey , D-Calif., felt about it as well.

But the lack of new information might not have mattered much.

"I share the president's goal to have stability in Afghanistan but I disagree with how to go about it. I see no military solution, and I would prefer refocusing the funds so that we are investing in diplomacy," Woolsey said. "My values are different than his on this - my ideas."

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich , D-Ohio, who helped round up votes against the use-of-force authorization that begat the Iraq War, opposed the Democratic-written fiscal 2010 budget (H Con Res 85, S Con Res 13) passed earlier this month because it envisioned spending for Afghanistan.

"It's quite obvious that, far from winding down a war, we're accelerating a war," Kucinich said.

Fear of Backsliding

Andrews of Win Without War said he is concerned about the prospect of the timeline for Iraq withdrawal slipping.

That fear is based in part on comments that the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, made to the Times of London last week in which he indicated that the June 30 target for removing U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities could slip - though he said in that interview and a subsequent one on CNN that he still believes U.S. forces will be out by the end of 2011.

Andrews said it is incumbent upon Congress to fortify Obama's vision for withdrawal from Iraq with legislative language that binds the Pentagon.

Odierno's comments were made, Andrews said, when "the ink is barely dry on the president's directive" for withdrawing troops. "It's important for the Congress to have its say."

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