Congressional Dems Get Balky on Afghanistan

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David Goldman / AP

A helicopter arrives to rescue the wounded after a U.S. armored vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in the Tangi Valley of Afghanistan's Wardak province

On May 6, after meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at the White House, President Barack Obama rolled out his favorite phrase, the one that usually precedes a line in the sand: "Let me be clear," Obama announced. "The U.S. has made a lasting commitment to defeat al-Qaeda but also to support the democratically elected sovereign governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. That commitment will not waver. And that support will be sustained."

If the clarity of Obama's rhetoric on Afghanistan strikes you as familiarly Bushian, it's possible you're a congressional Democrat. Obama has already committed 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan — a decision he called the toughest he's made in the Oval Office — only to see violence there increase. Fifty-one troops died in August, the bloodiest month since the U.S. invasion eight years ago. Public support for the war has plummeted, and the Afghan presidential elections could not have gone worse: it will take months for the U.N. to unstuff the ballot boxes and figure out if Karzai won outright or must defend himself in a runoff.

The last of the 21,000 new troops aren't scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan until November but already patience among congressional Democrats is wearing thin. Senator Russ Feingold has called for a withdrawal timeline. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry has expressed concern and is holding hearings this fall on the necessity of more troops, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is holding her tongue (sort of) while she awaits the Obama Administration's definition of success in Afghanistan. In an effort to build political support, the White House is developing a series of 50 benchmarks with Congress that will be announced on Sept. 24. Pelosi isn't exactly hopeful. "Sept. 24 is fraught with meaning for us," she told reporters last Thursday, before adding, "I don't think there's a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in the Congress."

In July, understanding that the war in Afghanistan had been neglected by Bush's preoccupation with Iraq and that these troops were needed under Obama's plan to stabilize Afghanistan, 52 Senate Democrats voted to temporarily expand the army by 30,000 troops through 2012. That means Obama is already authorized to send 9,000 more troops without asking Congress's permission. But most analysts estimate that an additional 25,000 to 45,000 are needed, and most Democrats in Congress know that some kind of ask from the President is imminent.

General Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, has held off on making another troop request because he's waiting for Obama to decide what, exactly, he wants done in Afghanistan — or, as McChrystal puts it, what kind of car Obama wants to be seen in. "My position here is a little bit like a mechanic. We've got a situation with a vehicle, and I've been asked to look at it and tell the owner what the situation is and what it will cost to make the vehicle run correctly," McChrystal told reporters Friday. "Now I understand that the vehicle owner has to make a decision on what the car is worth, how much longer he intends to drive it ... and whether he wants it to look good or just run."

Given Obama's focus on health-care reform, global warming and overhauling the banking system — not to mention the state of the economy — it's hard to imagine the President can pimp out his ride. The strain on resources is part of what makes many Democrats leery. "I'm very nervous," said Representative Jack Murtha, the 17-term Congressman from Pennsylvania who controls the Pentagon's purse strings in the House. Murtha said he would support troop increases in Afghanistan only if some of the 130,000 troops in Iraq start coming home ahead of schedule.

Senate Armed Forces Committee chairman Carl Levin said he would rather see a "surge of Afghan security forces" step up, supported by more trainers and equipment. "Our support of their surge will show our commitment to the success of a mission that is clearly in our national-security interest without creating a bigger U.S. military footprint that provides propaganda fodder for the Taliban," Levin said in a speech on the Senate floor. Still, when pressed by the New York Times, Levin said he wouldn't rule out eventually sending additional troops.

In his anxiety — and admission of possible acquiescence — Levin may represent most of his Democratic peers. With many Republicans supporting him, including John McCain and Sarah Palin, Obama might still have the votes necessary to send more troops. "I cannot imagine a Congress of Obama's own party denying him resources for a war he has called his top priority," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But so far he apparently hasn't decided if he wants those added resources, and he clearly hasn't yet made the case."