Democratic Split on Afghanistan Deepens
By Ben Pershing
The House and Senate Democratic leaders already appear to have their differences on the way forward in Afghanistan. Now the two men who control the purse strings for the federal government have also parted ways on the subject.
In the span of just a few hours Tuesday, the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees -- both Democrats -- made markedly different public statements on what President Obama should do next and whether more troops should be sent to bolster the war effort, with Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) voicing support for a new counterinsurgency strategy and Rep. David Obey (Wis.) reiterating his doubts about the entire venture. The split matters, since an increase in troops for Afghanistan would likely require the Obama administration to ask Congress for more money, and Inouye and Obey would need to agree.
Inouye returned from a trip to Afghanistan Tuesday night and issued a statement endorsing the overall strategic recommendations of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander there. "At this time, I believe General McChrystal's assessment of the current situation and his conclusions, including his assessment that coalition forces must have more daily contact with the people of Afghanistan, is correct and is what is needed if we are to achieve security and stability in Afghanistan," Inouye said. "As for the specific numbers of U.S. troops that may be required for this new strategy, I will await specific recommendations from the military and the Administration."
While acknowledging the high cost of sending more troops, Inouye said: "If, after further consultation and deliberation we decide we need 40,000 more troops or 50,000 more troops in Afghanistan, that's what we'll send but much more discussion has to take place before a final decision on troop levels can be made."
Obey, meanwhile, delivered a speech in Stevens Point, Wis., where he made clear that he does not believe the national will exists for a big troop buildup, nor does he believe the U.S. has reliable partners in this fight.
"When you have to work through two weak reeds like the Pakistan government and Afghan government, it severely limits what you can accomplish," Obey said, according to the Wausau Daily Herald (as was flagged by "The Cable" blog on ForeignPolicy.com).
Obey later added, "If we're going to try and take on the Taliban all across Afghanistan, it's going to require hundreds of thousands of American, Pakistani and Afghani troops, and I just don't believe that this country wants to see that happen."
Obey has made these points before, issuing a lengthy statement last week outlining the pitfalls of a continued long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan. "Because it would drain the spirit of the country over that long period of time as well as drain the U.S. treasury, it would devour virtually any other priorities that the President or anyone in Congress had," Obey said.
The split goes beyond just the current chairmen. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the previous Appropriations head before Inouye, made a rare visit to the Senate floor Wednesday to say: "I have become deeply concerned that in the eight years since the September 11 attacks, the reason for the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan has become lost, consumed in some broader scheme of nation-building which has clouded our purpose and obscure our reasoning." Byrd said he did not understand what McChrystal aimed to achieve with his troop request, and "if more troops are required to support an international mission in Afghanistan, then the international community should step up and provide the additional forces and funding."
That top Democrats are divided on Afghanistan is clear, but the next step on Capitol Hill is not.
The House and Senate are just beginning negotiations to reconcile their different versions of the Defense appropriations bill for 2010, and both measures include $128 billion to fund ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that amount simply represents the Obama administration's best guess, made months ago, for what the Pentagon would need over the next year.
That money does not included the cost of adding more troops beyond the current level. In his statement Tuesday, Inouye used the estimate that each additional 1,000 troops sent to Afghanistan would cost $1 billion per year, and that same ballpark number has been used by Appropriations aides and the administration. So a 40,000-troop increase would require something like $40 billion to fund.
But no one knows yet what strategy Obama will choose, and since the Pentagon has a huge budget and at least some flexibility to shift money between accounts, no one on Capitol Hill is willing to hazard a guess yet as to when the White House will have to ask for more money. When it does, Obey and Inouye -- and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), among others -- will have to sit down in a room and settle their differences.
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