- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

UPDATED EXCLUSIVE:

The No. 2 Republican in the House on Wednesday said President Obama is endangering American soldiers in Afghanistan because of his decision to conduct a review of whether or not to send more troops.

“Listen, you’ve got American lives on the line over there,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, during an interview in his U.S. Capitol office with reporters from The Washington Times. “As long as they are delaying, that puts in jeopardy, I believe, our men and women.”

The White House hit back, characterizing Mr. Cantor’s criticisms as “game-playing” and said the Republican lawmaker was silent when the Bush administration did not act on a request from the Army for more troops for Afghanistan in 2008.

“I don’t recall Congressman Cantor saying that, when General David McKiernan’s request for 30,000 additional troops sat on the desk of the previous commander in chief … going to a newspaper or on television saying that that commander in chief was endangering the lives of men and women in Afghanistan,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at his daily press briefing. “And I think if he didn’t say that under a somewhat similar circumstance, then it’s a bunch of game-playing.”

Sources who were close to the White House at that time said Mr. Bush did not act on the McKiernan request because he wanted to avoid tying the hands of the incoming president.

Mr. Cantor, in a wide-ranging interview that focused largely on health care reform, criticized what he said is the president’s “uncertainty” on the way forward in Afghanistan, calling it “troubling.”

Touting his first trip to the region this past February — “I’ve been to Kabul; I’ve been to Afghanistan” — Mr. Cantor said that Mr. Obama’s policy review has put the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan “in question.”

“If the mission they were sent there to achieve is now in question, what does that mean about what they do every day?” he asked.

Afterward, however, a Cantor spokesman qualified the Republican’s comments somewhat, saying the president is “entitled” to review the decision for a few weeks but should not prolong it for months.

“The president campaigned on Afghanistan and surely is entitled to take a reasonable amount of time — weeks — to review. But a decision should not sit for months, given the general’s assessment of the critical nature of the next 12 months,” Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said.

Mr. Obama met at the White House on Wednesday afternoon with his national security team to discuss the review as part of a series of intensive meetings on the issue. The president already this year has increased the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan from 36,000 to about 68,000, and in May he approved a change in military leadership.

The new commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is now reportedly seeking an additional 40,000 troops for the war. But following an Afghan election over the summer that was marked by widespread irregularities and charges of corruption, the White House is taking another look at how much it wants to invest in the conflict and in Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The president is adamant that he is committed to deterring terrorist groups from operating or establishing a safe haven along the Afghanistan border with Pakistan, but is questioning whether or not adding more soldiers is the right way to do that.

Mr. Cantor said the president should follow Gen. McChrystal’s advice.

“I just don’t understand why there is this need for other advisers and we need to listen to a round of opinions. Why don’t we just listen to the commanders we’ve got on the ground?” Mr. Cantor said. “What do we have the commanders for if we’re not going to listen to them?”

Mr. Cantor charged that Mr. Obama’s decision-making process was being unduly dominated by politics and “not long-term strategic security.”

“I’m talking about the left in this country that elected this president, in many ways, focused on his commitment to ending the commitment of our troops in the Middle East and, frankly, doesn’t like to see this president supporting the military the way he is,” Mr. Cantor said.