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The Times Online/UK

Democrats in Revolt Over Obama’s Troop Surge

Christina Lamb in Washington

Anti-war activists take part in a rally near the U.S. embassy in Seoul November 18, 2009. (REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak)

Barack Obama's much-vaunted eloquence faces the biggest test of his presidential career this week when he takes to the stage at West Point military academy to explain to a nation that thought it had elected an anti-war president why he is escalating the conflict in Afghanistan.

After almost three months of agonizing, nine war councils and endless leaks, the president will finally make his views known on Tuesday when he is expected to announce that he is sending about 30,000 more troops. This will push up American forces to 100,000 and the total number of allied forces to almost 140,000, as many troops as the Soviet Union had in Afghanistan.

The carefully chosen backdrop cannot disguise Obama's dilemma. Somehow he has to convince his own public that the United States has an exit strategy and will not become bogged down, as it did in Vietnam, while making clear to the Taliban and Pakistan that it has not lost its resolve and will stay as long as it takes.

Obama's toughest challenge will be to win over his most loyal political supporters. He is facing a growing revolt in the Democratic party over why the US needs to be in Afghanistan at all when the real threat - Al-Qaeda - is in Pakistan, and over the spiraling cost in both lives and dollars.

"I think the operative question is why we're there," said Anna Eshoo, a Democratic congresswoman who sits on the House intelligence committee. "That's what I'll be wanting to hear from the president."

Eshoo, who represents a seat in California where unemployment is at a post-war high of 12.5%, is one of a growing number of voices in the party questioning whether the nation can afford the war.

The annual bill for the extra troops is estimated at $30 billion (£18.2 billion), on top of the $10 billion-a-month the war is costing. "We're still not out of Iraq and we're getting deeper into Afghanistan, both of which are hugely expensive," she said.

She has joined David Obey, a Democratic congressman from Wisconsin, to introduce legislation that would impose a surtax on all taxpayers to fund the war. "It doesn't seem fair that the sacrifice is being made only by military and their families," she said.

In a sign of White House concern over the issue Obama invited Peter Orszag, the budget director, to sit in on his final round of deliberations on the Afghanistan strategy last week. "There is serious unrest in our caucus ... can we afford this war?" said Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker.

Obey's proposal would impose a 1% surtax on anyone earning less than $150,000 a year, and up to 5% on those earning more. It was an idea put into practice by President Lyndon Johnson, who brought in a temporary 10% surtax to help pay for the Vietnam war.

Democrats fear that stepping up the conflict at a time when unemployment is at a 26-year high of 10.2% will rebound on them in the mid-term elections next November.

"I think it threatens his domestic agenda pretty substantially," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas. "That's what a lot of other Democrats like Pelosi are worried about right now."


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For this reason Obama's speech will emphasize that sending more troops does not mean a never ending commitment to the war. "The president will ... underscore for the American people that this is not an open-ended conflict," said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman.

Obama has come under much criticism from the military at home and abroad and both sides of the political spectrum for the amount of time he has taken to decide whether to back recommendations made by General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, to send more troops "or risk failure".

Obama is expected to back a compromise proposal from Robert Gates, his defence secretary, to send 30,000 troops. This is less than the 40,000-plus requested by McChrystal, but he hopes to make up the shortfall with 10,000 extra soldiers from NATO countries. NATO defense ministers are meeting this week but an official admitted its contribution is likely to be more like 5,000.

There is still more backing for the war in the US than in Britain - a poll last week showed slightly more Americans in favor of escalating the war than cutting troop levels. But this support comes largely from Obama's political opponents, while those who voted for him and who will be crucial to re-electing Democrats in Congress next year are skeptical.

"Voters, particularly women, thought they had elected an anti-war president to get them out of Iraq, not to get them deeper into Afghanistan," said Karen O'Connor, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington.

With the 21,000 extra troops Obama agreed in February, he will have authorized more than 50,000 this year.

The situation in Afghanistan was far worse than he realized during the campaign and has deteriorated since his election last November.

The president will need all his resolve in the coming months. Military commanders admit that sending more troops will mean more casualties, though they hope that the McChrystal strategy of pulling troops back to the main cities and highways will show some results. The Americans are anxious to avoid getting entangled in remote valleys and villages fighting the Taliban.

The biggest obstacle to success may be the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who started his second term in office earlier this month after a deeply flawed election.

Officials will be watching closely to see whether he brings in warlords to his cabinet and what he does about his brother, Ahmed Wali, reputed to be heavily involved in opium smuggling.

Wali was in Mecca last week. "He went to repent," laughed a close adviser to Karzai. "He thinks that's enough."

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