WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the Obama administration debates sending more troops to Afghanistan, key members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation remain divided over what they see as the best way forward in a conflict that has already consumed billions of dollars and hundreds of U.S. lives.
On one side, Republican Rep. John Kline, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, supports substantially increasing the number of troops recommended by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
“It is very, very clear that in order for this counterinsurgency strategy to be a success — that is the strategy selected and the one recommended by the general. In order for that to be a success, they need to have resources,” said Kline in an interview with MinnPost. “You simply cannot bring Afghan forces up fast enough. So you need more U.S. forces.”
On the other side, Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has lobbied against a troop escalation, joining a group of 23 Democrats in introducing a resolution this month that would prohibit any troop increase in Afghanistan.
“To me, escalating troop levels is like trying to use water to put out a grease fire,” Ellison said. “I think increasing troop levels will simply increase the level of violence that we already see. I think that what we really need to do is put investment into agriculture training and the rule of law.”
Meanwhile, Democrat Rep. Tim Walz, a member of the House Veterans Committee, said he is still weighing expert analysis and hasn’t decided whether a troop increase would be the best way to go or not.
“This is agonizing,” Walz said. “The overwhelming voices [in my district] are very skeptical about a troop increase. But they are also uncertain about what it means if there isn’t a troop increase.”
Polls on Afghanistan
Walz’s assessment of his district in some ways mirrors what national polls have found when measuring public support for the war in Afghanistan.
In September, an ABC/Washington Post poll found that 46 percent of Americans thought the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting, while 51 percent said it was not worth the cost. The percentage marked a decrease from March when 56 percent said that the war was worthwhile.
A new poll released today, however, found that a plurality of Americans now backs a troop increase.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters this month that “the president is going to make a decision — popular or unpopular — based on what he thinks is in the best interests of the country.”
Of course, this is the key question: What is best for the United States?
Kline and others in Congress like Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton — the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee — argue that without troop increases, along with an escalation in civilian efforts, there will not be enough security to push down the Taliban insurgency while supporting and improving the Afghani infrastructure, economy and government.
McChrystal has requested a “surge” of about 40,000 U.S. troops. Key elements of McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy include pushing back on the Taliban while keeping al-Qaida out of the country, training and partnering with Afghani forces, and pressing greater accountability standards on the Afghani government.
“We do need to change [strategy] in the sense that we need to pay more attention to the [Afghani] government,” said Kline. “We have seen that the Karzai government is not respected by the Afghanis, so there needs to be constant work there. But you cannot get to any of the construction, any of the changes of agriculture practices, you can’t fix those things in an environment where people are afraid.”
Opponents of a troop increase have argued that there should be more focus on growing the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to take control of their own country.
But others, like Kline and Skelton, have said that at this point the Afghan National Security Forces are not in a position to take over and need additional U.S. troops to bolster their training efforts.
In addition, without the added troops to help dampen the insurgency and increase security in the country, Kline and other proponents of a troop increase say that Afghanistan has a greater chance of becoming a destabilizing influence on Pakistan.
“We cannot fail in Afghanistan because the consequences are enormously harmful,” Kline said. “Not just in Afghanistan, if it became a relatively safe haven for [al-Qaida], but because of the implications for Pakistan.”
Many experts and members of Congress and the administration consider Pakistan, with a nuclear arsenal and around 181 million people, to be the real potential threat to U.S. security if the government becomes aligned with the interests of extremist groups that currently call the country home.
“The Pakistanis need a stable Afghanistan for them to do that [launch an offensive against extremist groups in their own country],” Kline said. “If Afghanistan becomes the refuge from which Pakistan can be attacked, like Pakistan has become the refuge from which Afghanistan can be attacked, you are in a terrible position.”
Following reports of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and widespread voter fraud in the recent elections, however, there has also been a rising chorus in Washington to withhold sending additional troops to bolster a government that many in the country see as illegitimate. (President Hamid Karzai and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah are now due to challenge each other again in a Nov. 7 runoff, but there are reportedly doubts on whether it will take place).
Ellison, in addition to other Washington notables like Vice President Joe Biden and conservative columnist George Will, has argued that that an increased U.S. military presence will not increase the likelihood for success in the region.
Ellison and others have maintained that more troops will only aggravate anti-American sentiment.
“In the battle where there is an America face, you will see people taking up arms and fighting because of that,” Ellison said.
“Sending Americans to go in and fight the Taliban toe-to- toe is not the right thing to do,” he added. “Not only because I hate to see us lose American soldiers, but also because I don’t think it leads to a successful outcome because it just engages us and mires us down.”
Will said as much in a column in The Washington Post last month titled “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan.”
“The U.S. strategy is ‘clear, hold and build.’ Clear?” Will wrote. “Taliban forces can evaporate and then return, confident that U.S. forces will forever be too few to hold gains. Hence nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try: The Brookings Institution ranks Somalia as the only nation with a weaker state.”
These opinions were supported this month — the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion — by Matthew Hoh, who became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war.
“I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan,” he wrote in a Sept. 10 letter, according to The Washington Post. “I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end.”
Biden has reasoned that with so few al-Qaida fighters actually in Afghanistan, fighting al-Qaida in Pakistan should be the top priority.
Biden’s proposal would leave troop numbers relatively the same and would accelerate the training of Afghans while hunting al-Qaida in Pakistan using drones and special forces.
“We need to distinguish between what is essentially an internal Afghan issue and the U.S. issue,” Ellison said. “And our issue is that we do not want al-Qaida to get back in and the reports I have heard say that al-Qaida is not very prevalent there.”
In recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Paul R. Pillar — a veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency and now a visiting professor at Georgetown University — also discouraged the idea of a troop increase.
“The Taliban are a loosely organized resistance concerned above all with society, politics and power inside Afghanistan,” Pillar said in written testimony. “Despite their ideological affinity to, and prove cooperation with [al-Qaida], they are not driven by the transnational objectives associated with bin Laden and Zawahiri. Their interests in, and antagonism toward, the United States is almost entirely a function of what the United States does inside Afghanistan to thwart their aims there.”
On the stabilizing Pakistan front, Pillar went on to argue that “Pakistan will be far more influenced by forces within Pakistan itself.”
But in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this month, Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and a writer for The New Yorker magazine, seemed to refute this idea, stating that Pakistan is actually at a pivotal point in its societal development and would likely benefit from a U.S. -led counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
While Coll acknowledged that there could be risks associated with a “provocative aura of U.S. domination in Afghanistan,” which might intensify anti-American sentiment in the region, he believed that “something like the opposite is more likely to be true.”
“Pakistani public opinion, while it remains hostile to the United States, has of lately turned sharply and intensely against violent Islamist militant groups,” Coll said in written testimony.
Coll, who said that the stabilization of Afghanistan would likely require more troops for a period of several years, added that “a reasonably stable Afghan state” could “create conditions for Pakistan’s government to negotiate and participate in political arrangements in Afghanistan and the Central Asian region that would address Pakistan’s legitimate security needs, break the Army’s dominating mindset of encirclement, and advance the country’s economic interests.”
As Obama nears a decision on the matter, the administration has maintained that it is taking the cacophony of voices on the issue into account.
But, according to The New York Times, “the debate is no longer over whether to send more troops, but how many more will be needed.”
The Times reports that the strategy would, in effect, merge ideas put forward by both McChrystal and Biden by focusing protection efforts on major Afghan population centers.
When asked about the issue this month, Minnesota’s U.S. senators demurred.
Klobuchar, Franken views
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, said on Monday that she wanted to “wait and see” on troop increases in Afghanistan.
“We are facing a very difficult situation in Afghanistan. It is extremely important that we review all options and also consider the ramifications for Pakistan,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “I support the President’s efforts to work with our military commanders to carefully consider all relevant factors before finalizing any decision – our troops deserve nothing less.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Al Franken indicated this month that he did not believe sending more troops was necessarily the answer.
“I look forward to carefully assessing the results of the President’s review of our Afghanistan policy,” Democrat Franken said in a statement. “That review was undertaken in the wake of the election and in light of the fact that we may not have a reliable partner in the government there. I have serious concerns about the government in the wake of the election. I am encouraged by the news that there is going to be a runoff, though whether it produces a legitimate outcome remains to be seen.
“Minnesotans have many questions about the Afghan government and about what we are doing there, and I share those concerns,” he said. “I will have to look very carefully and skeptically at any push to significantly increase the number of troops we have committed to a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, I continue to meet with experts in and out of government on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy to gain as much insight into the challenges we face as possible.”
But, in spite of the disagreement on the issue, there was at least one thing that Minnesota’s lawmakers did agree on: they want to hear from McChrystal themselves.
“I think Gen. McChrystal should testify,” Walz said. “I think it is in everybody’s best interest for members of Congress to be as informed as possible.”
“I am very annoyed with the administration for not bringing General McChrystal to town,” said Kline, who has urged the administration to act as soon as possible. “We need to hear from the commander. I would like to hear from General Petraeus and General McChrystal to have them testify and answer our questions.”
Ellison agreed that the McChrystal’s testimony before Congress was overdue. “We need to hear from McChrystal,” he said.
Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.