Minnesota lawmakers in Congress express unease over war in Afghanistan

A soldier with an injured ankle from the the 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division is assisted past his burning M-ATV armored vehicle after it struck an IED on a road near Combat Outpost Nolen in the Arghandab Valley on Friday.
REUTERS/Bob Strong
A soldier from the the 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division is assisted past his burning M-ATV armored vehicle after it struck an IED on a road near Combat Outpost Nolen in the Arghandab Valley on Friday.

WASHINGTON — A growing minority in Congress — including some members of Minnesota’s delegation — are increasingly restless with the war in Afghanistan, expressing concerns that the war isn’t going well and that the present strategy isn’t working.

That emerging sentiment is being fuelled by the contents of 92,000 classified documents leaked earlier this week that painted a grim picture of Afghanistan and suggested that America’s most needed regional ally, Pakistan, has been secretly aiding the people firing bullets at American soldiers.

“Jim feels that the administration isn’t making the case for staying the course with its present strategy,” said Rep. Jim Oberstar’s spokesman John Schadl. Those WikiLeaks documents “didn’t really change his thinking, they confirmed a lot of what he was concerned about.

Rep. Jim Oberstar
Rep. Jim Oberstar

“The question is, how long are you going to keep putting American lives at risk and how much money are you going to keep throwing in there before you put a stable government in place?”

An overwhelming majority in the House decisively responded: Stay the course for the time being.

The House agreed late Tuesday to fund a supplemental war spending bill that will primarily pay for President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan. The vote was 308-114 in favor, two thirds being required and voting in the affirmative. Of those voting against, 102 were Democrats and 12 were Republicans.

Democrats Oberstar, Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum voted against the surge funding, while Collin Peterson and Tim Walz joined all three state Republicans in supporting it.

A call for change
Constitutionally, the Congress holds the power of the purse and as such can express their dissent with any executive branch action by de-funding it.

McCollum said the time to do so is now.

“After nine years of war and more than $300 billion of war funds added to our national debt, it is clear that an open ended U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is not acceptable to Afghans or Americans,” McCollum said in a statement following the vote.

Rep. Betty McCollum
Rep. Betty McCollum

“I believe now is the time for a movement away from an expanded military presence in Afghanistan towards a strategic drawdown of U.S. troops and a refocus on a counter-terrorism strategy to prevent al-Qaeda from again taking root.

“U.S. troops deserve a mission that is clear and achievable so they can return safely home with the knowledge that they have helped to keep America secure and allowed the Afghan people to make their own future. It is now time for the Afghan people to make that future.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, asked before the vote about the expected dissention, said much of the opposition comes from those who opposed the war since the Bush administration, when, Gibbs said, the United States “did not have a winning strategy in Afghanistan.”

President Obama’s strategy of a surge and counterinsurgency tactics was unveiled in late 2009 on advice from Gen. Stanley McChrystal and others. It’s based at least in part on the relatively successful surge in Iraq.

Given the chance to amend the policy recently when McChrystal was replaced in the furor over inappropriate comments to Rolling Stone magazine, the president tapped as his replacement David Petraeus, author of the Iraq surge policy.

To use a blackjack term, Obama doubled down, increasing his bets that the present course of action would eventually work.

“Coming into office, we spent a large chunk of time reviewing and creating a strategy that we believed had an opportunity to be successful,” Gibbs told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “Those troops are on their way in and by the end of August will all be in place.”

Most in Congress, as evidenced by the vote, are willing to give the White House that time.

“I have always viewed holding the administration accountable on the strategy as an important responsibility,” said Rep. Tim Walz, the highest-ranking enlisted soldier to serve in Congress.

Rep. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Rep. Tim Walz

“I have done that and will continue to do that, but I also view it as my responsibility to make sure the troops in the field have the resources they need to do the job we are asking them to do.”

Staying the same
When WikiLeaks published classified memos suggesting that, among other damning things, that Pakistan’s intelligence service was working hand-in-glove with the Afghan Taliban, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry said they raised “serious questions” about the “reality” of U.S. strategy.

“Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent,” Kerry said.

One day later, he changed his tone.

“I think it’s important not to over-hype or get excessively excited about the meaning of those documents,” he said at a Senate hearing Tuesday.

That seems to be the tone around the Senate, which will not have to vote on the war supplemental again given that the House agreed to its wording.

“Thus far there have been no blockbuster reports from the documents,” Sen. Al Franken said (adding later that his mind hasn’t changed on Afghanistan but he’s waiting “impatiently” to see progress there).

“One of the stories that came out emphasized how complicated our relationship with Pakistan is, which is true. But we’ve known for some time that elements of [Pakistani intelligence service] have been working at cross purposes to our own interests.”

And Sen. Amy Klobuchar said her first worry is that the leak might put troops in harm’s way.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Sen. Amy Klobuchar

“My obvious concern is with the troops and that there is nothing in those files that would endanger them in any way,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said. “As far as the substance, we’re still digesting that but I think everyone knows we have some major concerns with the Afghan government, and I’ve expressed those before.”

It all suggests that Congress, for all its bluster and the increasing skepticism of the war effort, is likely to give Obama the latitude he wants in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. In addition, Republicans have criticized plans to draw down troops, arguing such a move would embolden U.S. enemies and encourage Pakistan to waffle.

“At a distance, I do not see much fallout from the WikiLeaks disclosures except, perhaps, to boost a trend that has been visible for a few months,” said Steve Smith, a government and public policy professor at Washington University in St. Louis who commutes there from the Twin Cities.

“Frustration among liberals is building, mostly quietly, and conservatives are arguing more frequently that the Obama administration is mishandling the effort.

Smith said he doesn’t envision either party pushing as hard as would be required for a course change in Afghanistan, at least before November.

“I don’t think many congressional incumbents of either party will take the risk of making a priority issue of Afghanistan before the election,” he said. “Republicans want to keep the economy in focus and Democrats do not want to risk creating a split in the party.”

However, Smith added, “after the election, all bets are off.”

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 07/28/2010 - 02:26 pm.

    On April 22, 1971, John Kerry represented the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in testimony before members of the committee he now chairs, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    “We could come back to this country;” he said, “we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out.”

    He also made these remarks as part of his tetimony:

    “We found most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart”

    “We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them. We saw America lose her sense of morality as she accepted very coolly a My Lai and refused to give up the image of American soldiers who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum.”

    “We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the lives of orientals.”

    Change a word here and there and he could be talking about our unending war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq.

    A thousand kudos to Betty McCollum, Jim Oberstar, Keith Ellison, and the other 99 Democrats and 12 Republicans who, by voting against this funding, seem to see the unacceptable parallels between our current War on Terror and our previous War on Communism.

    As Pete Seeger wrote, “When will we ever learn?”

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/28/2010 - 04:44 pm.

    We should all consider ourselves fortunate that people like Betty et al weren’t around during the revolution. “But General Washington, you’re losing the war!”

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/28/2010 - 06:46 pm.

    As this phase of the war moves towards a close, we must remind ourselves what the war was really all about in the first place. Firstly a few facts:

    Did Al-Qaeda attack the USA on 11 Sep 2001?
    Did the Taliban attack the USA on 11 Sep 2001?

    And yet the war so far has been 99.9% against the Taliban. The reason for this is the Bush policy that stated that there was no distinction between terrorist organizations and nations or governments that harbored them. As the Taliban was permitting Al-Qaeda to have camps and bases in Afghanistan, they were fair targets.

    I would argue that this policy was a bad one as it has led to the current mess in which it is very likely that most of Afghanistan will return to the Taliban. And once they take over their part of the country we may have a repeat of the Najibullah killing of 1996, but this time it will be Karzai, the corrupt USA stooge.

    Then we can be sure that the Taliban will not forget that the Northern Alliance sided with the USA invasion and may attempt to settle this little debt. It means that the USA / NATO will have to arm the Northern Alliance to prepare them for a possible civil war.

    In retrospect, it would have been far better for the USA to have invaded Afghanistan, destroyed Al-Qaeda, beat up any Taliban that wanted to fight and then quickly pull out.

    A few lessons have been learnt by all.

    The Taliban learnt:
    a) it does not pay to harbor Al-Qaeda. It is too expensive in terms of manpower. (By the end of 2008, the Taliban apparently had severed remaining ties with al-Qaeda, according to senior U.S. military intelligence officials, there are perhaps fewer than 100 members of Al-Qaeda remaining in Afghanistan.).
    b) they can beat the USA / NATO just as they beat the Russians

    The USA / NATO learnt that
    a) The Bush policy was wrong
    b) Regime change is much more difficult than they thought
    c) Regime change is very expensive

  4. Submitted by John Olson on 07/29/2010 - 07:50 am.

    “The question is, how long are you going to keep putting American lives at risk and how much money are you going to keep throwing in there before you put a stable government in place?”

    Perhaps the real question should be whether or not a “stable government” (probably defined as one that is at least semi-friendly to the interests of the U.S.) can *ever* be put in place?

    It appears that the real power structure in Afghanistan remains with the various tribal elders. The Russians did not figure this out in the late 1970’s and neither have we. We may very well depart with some national government structure in place there, but its chances of long-term survival would seem questionable, at best.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/29/2010 - 06:59 pm.

    Good call John,
    There probably isn’t a country called Afghanistan. Who is in charge changes every 5 miles. Ungovernable for centuries from any ‘center’, crime is a safer source of income than is legal effort.

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