Democrats in Congress Growing Antsy over Afghanistan

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McClatchy Newspapers

Democrats in Congress Growing Antsy over Afghanistan

by
David Lightman and Warren P. Strobel

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich speaks during a news conference on Afghanistan, Friday, Sept. 11, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — Congress will examine next week the future of American
military involvement in Afghanistan, a future that many key lawmakers
hope won't include sending more U.S. troops than President Barack Obama
already has committed.

"There's a significant number of people in the country, and I don't
know the exact percentages, that have questions about deepening our
military involvement in Afghanistan," Senate Armed Services Committee
Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Friday.

Levin's
warning, combined with similar carefully worded comments recently from
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry
Reid, D-Nev., send a strong signal to Obama that many Democrats are
wary of escalating the U.S. role in Afghanistan. Indeed, Sen. Russ
Feingold, D-Wis., a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee — which will hold two hearings on Afghanistan next week_ is
urging discussion of a "flexible timeline" for ending American
involvement there.

The
president is weighing whether to increase U.S. forces in the country.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of American and NATO forces
in Afghanistan, submitted an assessment of the war to the White House
last month, and he's widely expected to ask soon for tens of thousands
of new U.S. troops. Three options that are being discussed are 5,000,
21,000 or 45,000 more troops.

It's unclear when Obama will make a decision, although the White House says that he won't be rushed.

"Getting
it right is of the utmost importance to the president," White House
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday. "There isn't an imminent
decision now. I think it will be many, many weeks of assessment and
evaluation."

Under a plan announced last spring, Obama already is
boosting U.S. combat troop strength there this year by 17,500, plus
4,000 military trainers for Afghan forces. That will bring the total
number of U.S. troops there to 68,000 by the end of this year.

Senior
military leaders acknowledge that the situation in Afghanistan is
getting worse. Last month was the deadliest yet of the nearly
eight-year-old war.

Against that backdrop, the Obama
administration is trying to halt the erosion of support on Capitol
Hill. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who's considered a hawk on
Afghanistan, met Friday with two leading Republicans, Sens. John McCain
of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, as well as with a hawkish
independent who caucuses with the Democrats, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of
Connecticut.

Officials used Friday's eighth anniversary of the
9-11 terrorist attacks, which al Qaida planned from its former base in
Afghanistan, to underscore the need to continue the effort. Al Qaida
now is based in Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials have said.

"We
have a very crucial stake in Afghanistan. If we need any reminder of
it, it comes today," said the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations,
Susan Rice. She said it was "frankly, premature" to make judgments on
the new strategy that Obama announced in March.

Lawmakers are in
a thorny position because the war is increasingly unpopular. "I don't
think there is a great deal of support for sending more troops to
Afghanistan in the country or in the Congress," Pelosi said Thursday.

Lawmakers
hope to use a series of events to clarify the administration's
position, and perhaps forge consensus on how to proceed.

On
Tuesday, Levin's committee will question Adm. Michael Mullen, the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a hearing on his nomination
to another term.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee will examine the U.S. Afghanistan policy. The
chairman of that panel, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., hasn't yet stated his
position on a possible troop increase.

For now, Democratic
congressional leaders are reluctant to split publicly with Obama on the
issue. Feingold said that setting a timetable for withdrawal would
"undercut the misperception of the U.S. as an occupying force." Like
Levin, however, he hasn't yet formally proposed legislation, because
Democrats are being cautious.

"What I am saying is — and I'm
saying it carefully but, I hope, clearly — that we should complete the
planned number of additional combat forces that are planned to go in
for this year," Levin said, "but that what we must do if we're going to
succeed in Afghanistan is to focus on the strength of the Afghan
military forces and to do it in a way that we have not yet done it."

He
explained why Friday in a Senate floor speech: "The larger our own
military footprint there, the more our enemies can seek to drive a
wedge between us and the Afghan population, spreading the falsehood
that we seek to dominate a Muslim nation."

Afterward, Republicans rallied to support the war.

Sen.
Kit Bond, R-Mo., urged Democrats, "Don't give in to the pundits. Don't
give in to the left wing that has declared defeat in Afghanistan as
they did so vocally in Iraq."

Levin plans no legislative move on
troop policy at the moment, nor does Feingold. Senate Majority Leader
Reid is urging Democrats to "wait until the president makes up his mind
as to what he thinks should be done. And then we'll have ample
opportunity to do that."

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