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Obama and fellow Democrats at odds about troop increase for Afghanistan

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

President Obama will reveal his new Afghanistan war strategy in a speech Tuesday evening to cadets at West Point, but his most skeptical audience is likely to be the powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill who oppose a troop buildup.

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Top Democrats have made it clear to Obama that he will not receive a friendly reception should he announce what is considered the leading option: sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The legislators have indicated that a request for more money to finance a beefed-up war effort will be met with frustration and, perhaps, a demand to raise taxes.

Even so, Obama appears ready to come close to accepting the recommendation of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, to add 40,000 more troops to the war effort. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Wednesday that several NATO countries will send an additional 5,000 troops to Afghanistan. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that Obama had not yet informed members of his war council of his decision.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described what she called "serious unrest" in her caucus over the prospect of another vote to finance billions of dollars for an expanded war. It is, she said, the most difficult vote she can ask of the members of her party. "We need to know what the mission is, how this is further protecting the American people and is this the best way to do that, especially at a time when there's such serious economic issues here at home," she told bloggers on a Tuesday conference call.

Pelosi met with Obama at the White House on Tuesday and later sat next to him at the state dinner he held that evening. Both sides declined to comment Wednesday about the substance of the roughly hour-long discussion.

In June, Pelosi strong-armed anti-war Democrats into voting for a $100 billion measure to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During an interview in July, she recounted her appeal to the lawmakers: "Will you change your mind and one more time vote for war funding?" She also promised not to ask again. "This is the very last time," she told them.

Now, barely five months later, Pelosi and Obama will soon have to go back to the war well, even as they seek difficult votes from the same Democrats on health-care reform, climate change legislation and regulation of the financial industry.

Those domestic policy efforts are far from settled, but Pelosi has described them only as "heavy lifts" that were "nothing" compared with the war votes of the past three years. "You have to go to somebody who is totally, completely, entirely opposed to war funding, and you need to have them vote on it. And you don't even want to vote on it yourself," she said in the July interview.

Obama plans to brief lawmakers at the White House just hours before he leaves for West Point to deliver his speech. The House Foreign Affairs Committee scheduled a hearing on the president's Afghanistan strategy for Dec. 2, the day after the speech. Among those asked to testify: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

McChrystal and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry, also are expected to testify next week.

Senior aides said the president's first task will be to seek the understanding of an uneasy nation for his new approach to a war that began eight years ago. Among the reassurances he will offer, they said, is a promise that an end is in sight.

"We are in year nine of our efforts in Afghanistan. We're not going to be there another eight or nine years," Gibbs said.

But members of the party's most liberal wing, such as Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), have expressed serious doubts about the overall direction of the president's strategy.

"Devoting billions more dollars and tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan is not likely to significantly improve conditions in that country, and it will not help -- and could even hurt -- our efforts to dismantle al-Qaeda's global network with safe havens in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and elsewhere," Feingold said.

Even the Democratic Party's more hawkish lawmakers, such as Sen. Carl M. Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, have said they have deep reservations about the wisdom of a troop buildup.

Kerry has said he is "very wary of it because of past experience and because of some of the challenges that I see." Levin has insisted that more be done to train Afghan troops before sending more Americans.

"Before we commit to additional combat forces, which has a distinct negative, not only for our overstretched troops but also the footprint argument, I believe we must do these other things that are the best way to succeed," Levin said in September.

Senior Democratic aides said no decision will be made on how or when to fund the expected troop request until Obama spells out his plan. One option would be a supplemental spending bill that could be considered early next year. Another would be to add the funding to one of the appropriation bills lawmakers are trying to pass by the end of the year to fund most of the federal government for fiscal 2010.

Such a vote would require much Republican support for passage, because dozens of the most liberal Democrats might oppose the measure. Obama has so far shown little ability to court GOP votes on major legislation, although Republicans have supported almost every war-funding bill since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Because Obama has not formally announced his Afghanistan plan, Republican lawmakers have remained muted in their support for it. The GOP approach has largely been to demand that Obama accept his generals' requests.

Several key GOP lawmakers are using the Thanksgiving holiday to visit Kabul, where they are expected to talk to McChrystal in meetings that could serve as bellwethers of Republican thinking on the plan.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.



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