President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday night at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point laid out his administration’s plan to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and start a phased withdrawal beginning in 18 months, but the plan has won the White House few supporters in either its own party or across the aisle.
A conditioned endorsement came from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry, a Democrat, who praised Obama for "defin[ing] a narrower mission tonight, not an open-ended nation-building exercise."
However, Kerry warned that his support for deploying additional troops is based on a "strict understanding of the need to transfer and build as well as partner with Afghans," and unless authority is quickly handed over to the government there, the war "will end in failure, no matter how many troops we send to Afghanistan."
One of the most important House Democrats, Congressman David R. Obey from Wisconsin, who chairs the Committee on Appropriations, expressed concerns that the chance of success in Afghanistan was slim and the cost of the war too high.
"We can have the most carefully thought-out policy in the world, but if we do not have the tools on the ground, the odds for success are stacked against us. And right now, the only tools available to us are the Pakistani government and the [Hamid] Karzai government in Afghanistan. Both are incredibly weak reeds to lean on," said Obey.
Obey, who has proposed a "progressive war surtax" of one percent on anyone with a taxable income and as much as five percent for the highest income bracket, noted with concern that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan could cost as much as 90 billion dollars this year and 500-900 billion dollars over the next decade.
"We simply cannot afford to shortchange the crucial investments we need in education, job training, healthcare and energy independence. The biggest threat to our long-term national security is a stunted economy," said Obey.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Democratic Congressman John Murtha, who chairs the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, described the options facing Obama as "a real son of a gun" and "horrendous," but acknowledged that he "didn’t see any circumstances under which the president would lose the battle over the money this year."
Congress will not vote on the plan but will likely have to approve a supplemental appropriations bill for 2010 in March or April. This will be the first likely opportunity for Congress to vote on Obama’s war plan for Afghanistan.
Despite confidence that Obama will get the funding, Murtha expressed doubts that the president’s strategy will work, stating, "I’m not sure there’s a threat to our national security" and "I’m not sure there’s a goal here that can be achieved."
The reaction of other leading Democrats ranged from support for the plan to outright opposition to the U.S. role in Afghanistan.
"I see no good reason for us to send another 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan when we have so many pressing issues — like our economy — to deal with in this country," said Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat and member of the House leadership.
Senator Arlen Specter, a Democrat of Pennsylvania, also expressed doubts over one of the primary national security arguments of Obama’s Tuesday night speech, stating, "I oppose sending 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan because I am not persuaded that it is indispensable in our fight against al Qaeda."
"If it was, I would support an increase because we have to do whatever it takes to defeat al Qaeda since they are out to annihilate us. But if al Qaeda can operate out of Yemen or Somalia, why fight in Afghanistan where no one has succeeded?" he asked.
Two other Democrats, Senator Dick Durbin and Congressman Ike Skelton, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, also questioned the White House’s war plan.
"President Obama asked for time to make his decision on a new policy in Afghanistan. I am going to take some time to think through the proposal he presented tonight," said Durbin.
"I have a number of questions to which I hope we can get answers — for example, the role of Pakistan, how specifically we will measure progress over time, what additional resources we will need on the civilian side of the effort, how we will manage strain on our forces, and how we expect the government of Afghanistan to be reformed," said Skelton.
Indeed, the centrality of Pakistan in Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan cannot be overstated, leading some experts to suggest that Pakistan is the key U.S. strategic interest in the region.
"Here the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States and India actually have a common interest — to persuade Pakistan to abandon its support for [groups like the Taliban] and pursue its legitimate security goals by other means," said South Asia expert Steve Coll in an interview in Foreign Policy.
"American failure in Afghanistan would almost guarantee failure of this project in Pakistan," Coll concluded.
Obama’s surge strategy for Afghanistan was also attacked by Republicans who fear the White House is declaring an early defeat by committing to a troop withdrawal timeline beginning in 18 months.
While Senator John McCain approved of the administration’s surge strategy, saying, "The president has made the right decision to embrace a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan and to resource it properly," he criticized Obama’s schedule for troop withdrawals.
"What I do not support, and what concerns me greatly, is the president’s decision to set an arbitrary date to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies — in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the entire region — all of whom currently doubt whether America is committed to winning this war," McCain continued.
Obama seemed to win over few allies on either side of the aisle and was the target of criticism that he was doing both too much — by committing the U.S. to a 30,000-troop surge in Afghanistan — and too little — by committing to a withdrawal timeline.
Despite the wide-ranging negative responses to Obama’s troop surge announcement, the White House did win over Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, an outspoken Obama critic who as recently as last week was declaring the Obama presidency a failure.
"Just what is Barack Obama as president making of our American destiny? The answer, increasingly obvious, is … a hash. It’s worse than most of us expected. His dithering on Afghanistan is deplorable, his appeasing of Iran disgraceful, his trying to heap new burdens on a struggling economy destructive," wrote Kristol on Nov. 23.
In a Washington Post op-ed Wednesday, Kristol lauded the new "War President," saying "By mid-2010, Obama will have more than doubled the number of American troops in Afghanistan since he became president; he will have empowered his general, Stanley McChrystal, to fight the war pretty much as he thinks necessary to in order to win; and he will have retroactively, as it were, acknowledged that he and his party were wrong about the Iraq surge in 2007 — after all, the rationale for this surge is identical to Bush’s, and the hope is for a similar success. He will also have embraced the use of military force as a key instrument of national power."
(Inter Press Service)