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House Dems' Afghan Anxieties

by John Bresnahan

As President Barack Obama wrestles over what to do next in Afghanistan, there may be no one watching him more closely than junior House Democrats.

Congressman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., in this file photo from 2008. McGovern, has called on Obama to develop an "exit strategy" for getting U.S. forces out of the troubled country. The McGovern bill has 98 co-sponsors, including more than two dozen freshman and sophomore Democrats. (Photo: file.) Many of these Democrats, swept into power in the party's big victories in the 2006 and 2008 elections, hammered former President George W. Bush for losing focus on the war in Afghanistan as his administration struggled to contain the bloody insurgency in Iraq.

During their campaigns, they adopted the mantra of Democratic leaders like Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) - that the real frontline in the "War on Terror" was Afghanistan, not Iraq, and Bush was "taking his eye off the ball" by pouring troops and money into Iraq.

But with U.S. forces beginning to pull out of Iraq and Obama facing calls to send thousands of more U.S. troops to Afghanistan - as many as 40,000 under the recommendations forwarded to the White House by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander there - there is no certainty how this group will respond if Obama goes along with that request.

"The question the public is going to ask is whether this strategy is going to lead to a more secure America, is it the right way to go? I don't know if those questions have been answered yet. They haven't for me," said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.). "We may do everything right [in Afghanistan], and still lose."

Walz, who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, also has doubts over the legitimacy of Afghan President Hamad Karzai's recent re-election victory, and he vows to question the current commander-in-chief as harshly he did his predecessor.

"The same critique, criticism and focus that I bought on the Bush administration, I'm bringing to the Obama administration," Walz added.

Walz's comments signal the problems facing Obama as he deals with a nervous Congress on Afghanistan. Opinion is divided among House Democrats on whether to continue to throw more personnel and money into a war that will soon be entering its ninth year. Pelosi has privately and publicly warned the White House that there isn't "a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan, in the country or in Congress."

Republicans feel like they have the president in a box politically on Afghanistan, according to GOP insiders, and they are pressing their advantage. If Obama goes along with the McChrystal recommendations, he risks alienating the progressive base of the Democratic party, which wants to see the White House develop an exit strategy for getting out of Afghanistan.

But pulling out means a potential return of Taliban control, and which that, the specter of al Qaeda once again using Afghanistan as a base to attack the United States and its Western allies.

Democrats fear the fallout in 2010. Recent polling shows the American public is "war weary," and the Democratic is pushing for withdrawal, with groups like MoveOn.org leading that charge. Going against the party's base on this issue could alienate the Democrats' most loyal supporters heading into what it shaping up to a tough political environment.

Most House Democrats, according to party sources, are opposed to a U.S. escalation in Afghanistan, with maybe 40 to 60 "in play," meaning they would be open to White House appeals for more time, more money and more troops.

"There's a high degree of concern," said a senior House Democratic aide. "They're very skeptical. They don't want to invest another eight to 10 years [in Afghanistan] and they don't know what form of government there will be or who we're supporting."

Walz, for instance, has signed onto a bill by Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), the most vocal critic among House Democrats of the Afghan war, calling on Obama to develop an "exit strategy" for getting U.S. forces out of the troubled country. The McGovern bill has 98 co-sponsors, including more than two dozen freshman and sophomore Democrats.

McGovern also released a bipartisan letter to Obama last week, urging the president to "reject any recommendation for a further escalation of U.S. military forces" in Afghanistan.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who like Walz was opposed to the Iraq war, said he signed onto the McGovern letter because boosting the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan isn't the right solution.

"We squandered the opportunity to successfully destroy the Taliban by putting so much effort into Iraq," Cohen said. "I don't feel like additional troops is the answer."

Another sophomore, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), said Iraq was a distraction from Afghanistan, but she added that Afghanistan is in such disrepair that it's time to reassess the American military mission there.

"I was absolutely appalled" at the conditions there, said Shea-Porter, who visited Afghanistan in May. "It actually makes Iraq look like Manhattan."

Yet there is also realization among rank-and-file Democrats that the party could suffer huge political damage if, by ending the U.S. military campaign there, the Taliban reasserts control over all Afghanistan, providing a safe haven for al Qaeda to mount attack against America and the Western allies.

"This is a long, complicated struggle," said Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), who was behind a May 2008 letter slamming Bush for focusing all his attention on Iraq rather than Afghanistan and signed onto by 47 members of the 2006 Democratic class. But while some of his classmates now want the United States out of Afghanistan, Klein isn't joining them.

Klein wants to get "a broader view of the terrorist threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Somalia and Yemen and other places" from the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies before deciding whether he can back additional troops for the Afghan conflict.

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) has already made up his mind. "I think this is long overdue," said Altmire. "There are some in the [Democratic] caucus who are concerned about the escalation of the war, but I think it's the right thing to do. We need to this."

GOP leaders have urged Obama to support McChrystal's call for more troops, while at the same time calling on the White House to make the general available for congressional hearings, the same way the Bush administration approved the dramatic appearances of Petraeus and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker in September 2007.

House Democrats see nothing but pure political maneuvering in the Republicans' pleas for Obama to support McChrystal's recommendations. "They want the president to make a strategic decision, and no matter what decision he makes, they will come out against," said a top House Democratic staffer.

-- Jonathan Allen contributed to this report.

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