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McKeon: Demanding Issues Await Hill Action

As the bell tolls on the first session of the 111th Congress, the nation’s attention has returned to national security matters. On Dec. 1, President Barack Obama delivered a long-overdue speech on the strategy America’s brave men and women of the military will pursue in Afghanistan. The commander in chief’s speech was followed by several days of intense action on Capitol Hill as his national security team attempted to sell the strategy to a reluctant Congress.

When Congress adjourns, the nation’s national security challenges will not follow suit. Many demanding national security issues will be awaiting Congress’ return in January.

Chief among these challenges will be the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — the first spinning up and the latter winding down. By surging 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan and recommitting to a modified counterinsurgency strategy, President Obama has taken full responsibility for the war effort. This is fitting since he argued the war of necessity — the ‘legitimate’ war — was in Afghanistan against al-Qaida, the Taliban and their affiliated terrorist networks.

With the president’s speech and the testimony from his national security team and the top U.S. military and civilian leaders in Afghanistan, we have finally turned a corner in the war in Afghanistan. As we move from the assessment stage to the execution phase of the president’s strategy, Congress must provide our troops with the time, space and resources they need to succeed. Providing for the troops remains one of Congress’ primary responsibilities.

However, adequately resourcing Afghanistan should not come at the expense of sustaining successes made by our forces in Iraq. As President Obama finally acknowledged recently, the troop surge and effective application of counterinsurgency doctrine was a success. Our troops, under the leadership of Gens. David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, dealt al-Qaida in Iraq a decisive blow and allowed Iraqis to rise above the ethnic violence that raged in the country for most of 2006 and 2007.

The challenge before the United States and our troops might be more complex now; we must work with the Iraqis to win the peace. The situation in Iraq has improved dramatically, but Iraq is still an “embryonic” democracy where the security situation can devolve to violence in an instant. This fact was underscored by coordinated attacks in Baghdad last week that killed more than 100 innocent Iraqis.

After much political wrangling, Iraqi national elections have been set for March 7, 2010 — two full months later than originally planned. President Obama, upholding a promise made in the heat of a political campaign, committed the United States to redeploying U.S. combat troops from Iraq by August 2010. The president’s timeline was predicated on successful national elections in January 2010. In a letter to the president in November, I raised my concerns that the redeployment schedule is too aggressive.

Moreover, now that Iraq’s national elections have slipped to March, the president’s Aug. 31, 2010, redeployment deadline offers Gen. Odierno little room to maneuver. During his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in September, Gen. Odierno stated that “the first 60 days following the election may be the most critical time.” This period will reveal whether violence will follow the election. Congress has a responsibility to ensure the commander on the ground does not have to choose between maintaining security in Iraq and keeping with the president’s arbitrary redeployment deadline. The troop withdrawal from Iraq should be based solely on the conditions on the ground.

Congress will also have a role to play in the president’s decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 terrorists attacks on American soil in a U.S. civilian court, as well as his decision to close the terrorist detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Both of these decisions indicate the president and his allies in Congress do not view the 9/11 attacks as an act of war. The preoccupation with Guantánamo’s closure has distracted the president and his administration from the more pressing national security problem of how we ensure detainees transferred or released do not resurface on the battlefield — as has happened in the past.

Finally, early next year Congress will be presented with President Obama’s budget for fiscal 2011 and the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review. We must closely analyze both to ensure we are making adequate investments for our future security. My hope is that the president will steer clear of the hollow defense budgets, peace dividends and procurement holiday that defined the Clinton presidency. The temptation to take discretionary dollars ordinarily reserved for defense to free up funds for domestic spending programs will ultimately jeopardize our national security. We must counter a declinist vision of American leadership in global security and remember a strong national defense guarantees American prosperity.

These challenges are not overpowering; they should be viewed as opportunities to show our commitment to providing for America’s national security and the brave men and women of our military and their families.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) is ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee.

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