- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Capitol Hill Republicans eager to boost the Pentagon’s push for a troop surge in Afghanistan are lobbying to give military commanders a chance to make their pitch directly to Congress - using tactics that backfired on Democrats in their bid to end the Iraq war.

Drawing parallels to the Iraq debate, top Republicans are demanding that the commanders be given a voice without the filter of a dubious President Obama, who this weekend said he brings a “skepticism” to any request for more deployments.

Democrats tried to do the same in 2006 and 2007, expecting to hear the commanders detail an unwinnable war. Instead, the tactic allowed Gen. David H. Petraeus to make the case for the surge in Iraq.

This time, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is expected to warn that more troops will be needed, and soon, if the insurgents are to be defeated. That puts Mr. Obama in the position of having to choose whether he sides with his own military brass and Republicans, or joins with those in his party who say that increasing the number of troops doesn’t make sense.

“We need to consider how sending more troops would affect the entire region and our efforts to fight al Qaeda globally,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, who called for a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. “Spending billions more dollars and sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan may not significantly improve conditions on the ground, and may actually prove counterproductive in stabilizing Pakistan and fighting al Qaeda in the region and around the world.”

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, accused Mr. Obama of endangering the mission by “delaying action” on sending more troops. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Republicans will insist that commanders be able to make their case.

“If our recent experience with Iraq shows us anything, it’s that our commanders in the field are in the best position to tell us what will work. Gen. McChrystal says that without adequate resources, we will fail. In my view, we should listen to that advice,” said Mr. McConnell, adding that Gen. McChrystal, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, “has now sent his recommendation for a counterinsurgency strategy to protect the population and defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. Congress should support it.”

Gen. McChrystal delivered a confidential report to the president and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates several weeks ago that says without more troops, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan will not succeed.

“Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) - while Afghan security capacity matures - risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,” the general said in his assessment, first reported by The Washington Post.

The general called for a better counterinsurgency strategy based on more troops and different tactics, and gave a sobering assessment of corruption within the Afghan government. He also portrayed a formidable enemy in the Taliban, which the U.S. unseated from power after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but which has waged war against the new government in the eight years since.

Democrats said Gen. McChrystal also acknowledges that the question of troop levels is subordinate to the overall goal of determining the best strategy. Democrats said they’ll continue pressing for other nations to step up their efforts.

The administrations of George W. Bush and Mr. Obama have tried to get other NATO nations to take on more responsibilities, but the fight is proving increasingly unpopular in some allied countries.

The White House said Gen. McChrystal’s assessment is not the last word. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration is awaiting a specific request for more resources before Mr. Obama makes his decision about the course of action. Mr. Gibbs also drew a distinction between the commander, who he said has a specific mission, and the president, who he said has to worry about broad goals.

“We’re going to conduct that strategic assessment and do that in a way that lays out the best path forward before we make resource decisions, rather than having this go the other way around where one makes resources decisions and then finds a strategy,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Public support for the war effort is ebbing, with Americans almost evenly divided. A Fox News poll released Monday put support at 46 percent and opposition at 45 percent, with Democrats opposed by a margin of nearly 2-to-1 and Republicans in support by more than 2-to-1.

Republicans said Mr. Obama is showing uncertainty in delaying a decision.

“It is clear this president is looking for some encouragement from within his own party to do the right thing,” said Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican and chairman of the Republican Study Committee. “Republicans are willing to do what is needed to defeat al Qaeda. If the generals say it’s possible, we stand willing and ready.”

Congress has yet to approve a final defense spending bill, and Republicans said that will be one avenue for forcing the debate into lawmakers’ laps.

But Mr. Price said if Mr. Obama decides against more troops, he fears that debate might be muted as Democrats rally around their party leader at the expense of the military mission.

“The last thing we need to do is repeat the same failed strategy we saw in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 - at a time when our generals were saying there needs to be a change in strategy. We need to be listening to our generals now,” he said.

The parallels with 2006 run deep - though the sides in some ways are switched.

Democrats at the time demanded a “year of change” in Iraq, and even secured Republican support for adding that language in a bill in the Senate. But that change ended up being the troop surge, which most Republicans supported but left Democrats deeply divided.

Hopeful of pressing their case, Democrats demanded that the military have a chance to testify on their own, without the filter of Bush administration political appointees. Gen. Petraeus‘ testimony ended up buying the time Mr. Bush needed to put in place the troop surge that has been credited with helping Iraq achieve greater stability and clearing the way for Mr. Obama’s troop withdrawal.

During the presidential campaign Mr. Obama criticized U.S. efforts in Iraq and said they had distracted the nation from the critical fight in Afghanistan. During a campaign-season trip to the nation, Mr. Obama called for a boost in troop strength.

Earlier this year, he approved an additional 21,000 troops but called for a broad assessment before making further commitments.

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