Obama Must Sell Liberals on Afghanistan

Posted February 25, 2009 at 6:49pm

President Barack Obama’s push for a surge in military troops to Afghanistan is starting to rile some liberal House Democrats worried about another potential quagmire in the Middle East.

Obama has secured the backing of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democratic leaders to send another 17,000 troops into Afghanistan this year. But some in the party’s left flank are already saying they will staunchly oppose sending any more U.S. soldiers overseas.

“No more troops. Not even one,” said House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), a co-founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus. The 73-Member bloc was formed with the sole purpose of bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Conyers said the fact that both Obama and Pelosi are calling for more soldiers in Afghanistan has no effect on his opposition to Obama’s plan.

“I disagree with it totally,” he said, adding that he can understand why the president would think more troops is a good idea since “he’s using all of [former President George W. Bush’s] generals. … But even a perfect president can be incorrect from time to time.”

But even outside of the liberal wing, some are expressing reservations.

Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) described the climate in Afghanistan as “a real troubling issue” and said it reminds him of how putting “more troops in Vietnam didn’t work.”

Murtha warned that, without clearly defined goals being tied to troop increases, “I worry. I do not see the goal I need to see.” Asked what the troop plan should be, he replied, “The goals are to train them as quickly as possible and get the hell out — I hope.”

“I just think he needs to be very careful,” added Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. “This situation does not lend itself to a military solution. Period.”

Moran said he can “temporarily” support Obama’s call for a surge since Obama has made it clear that an international presence is necessary for economic stability. But he warned, “I don’t think we can put any more troops in unless NATO is willing to match us. And I don’t think they’re willing to.”

Pelosi, who opposed the Iraq War from the start and the surge that followed the initial deployment, pledged her support for Obama on Monday. She said she has no concerns with his plan to send additional troops to Afghanistan or with the lack of a timeline for keeping them in the war-torn country.

“I, for one, have long supported our going back to Afghanistan and getting the job done,” said Pelosi, who spent part of last week in the region. Obama is set to release his review of the ground situation in Afghanistan “soon,” she said, and Congressional leaders support his plan to make judgments based on that review.

Other House leaders such as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, maintain that a troop buildup in the region is unavoidable.

“In Afghanistan, the goal is to try and make sure that you don’t allow Afghanistan or the [tribal] areas of Pakistan to become the base for an attack on the United States,” he said.

Van Hollen also pointed to the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “Al-Qaida unfortunately is alive and growing in strength in the Pakistan and Afghanistan area, and we cannot permit that. … The president was very clear and 100 percent right.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), co-chairwoman of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, maintained that Democrats are united on the issue of taking action in Afghanistan because there is “clarity from our party” that the region needs international help.

It won’t come without conditions, at least if the liberals have their say.

Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), along with Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), sent a letter to Obama this month with recommendations for U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Among their requests: a “clear authorization” from Congress for the use of military force, a timeline for the redeployment of troops and defined goals of U.S. involvement in the region.

“We look forward to receiving the Administration’s comprehensive plan for the region and learning more about how sending additional troops to Afghanistan fits into that plan,” Lee said in a statement.

But one thing noticeably missing from the letter is outright opposition to the possibility of troop increases. And some Democrats are wondering why there isn’t the same angry sentiment about troops heading to Afghanistan as there was in Iraq.

“Quite honestly, I’m just personally a little surprised that there isn’t this outcry,” Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said.

Woolsey conceded that anti-war lawmakers have been relatively quiet about Afghanistan, but she said it is because they are trying to give “breathing room” to Obama as he lays out a strategy.

“I will hold my breath for a while to be brought up to speed on why they’re going,” Woolsey said. “There will be pushback, but we have to see what the plan is. … Bringing our troops home from Iraq, which must happen, and then rolling them right into Afghanistan is not the answer. I mean, what do we accomplish? Nothing.”

The California Democrat said she hadn’t heard that Pelosi announced Monday her intention to set up closed-door briefings with Members and administration officials to discuss the situation in the area.

“I can assume I’ll be invited then,” Woolsey said. “It would be very smart of them to include the progressives in that.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) predicted some resistance from anti-war Members on the issue of additional troop deployments, but he said he thought their concerns would largely translate to questions in Caucus meetings.

Some liberal lawmakers vowed to make their views known by opposing the supplemental budget and the defense appropriations bill if they include funds for sending the 17,000 additional troops overseas.

“If it comes to Congress for an appropriation, as they have to, I’m going to vote against it,” liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said. “I opposed the policy when George Bush was president and I oppose it now. There will be opportunities between now and the time that this policy is unfolding to be able to get that point of view across.”

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) said he views the 17,000 number as little more than “a placeholder” for Obama to buy time, and he predicted that Democrats would give Obama a chance to propose his plan.

But with time will also come the conclusion that there can’t be a military resolution to the region, Abercrombie said. “The Afghanistan situation is even less promising … from a military perspective than Iraq was because there’s no objective,” he said.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.