- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2009

Sunday’s political talk shows provided a glimpse of the directions in which President Obama’s Afghanistan decisions will be pulled, as a key Democrat said his party wants to turn the fight against the Taliban over to Afghan forces, and the Senate’s No. 2 Republican criticized any proposal with a U.S. pullout schedule.

The disagreement exemplified the political gauntlet for the president, inside his own party and outside it, as he prepares to announce his long-term plan for Afghanistan in a prime-time address Tuesday.

“If the mission is, as I hope, trying to very quickly build up the Afghan army both in size and in capability and in equipment, if the mission is to give them the capacity to take on the Taliban — and I believe that will be the principal mission stated — that would be one important thing to happen for Democratic support,” Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and Armed Services Committee chairman, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“The key here is an Afghan surge, not an American surge,” Mr. Levin said. “We cannot, by ourselves, win” the war against the Taliban, which harbored Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Some anti-war Democrats in Congress have stuck by their calls for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, while other more-conservative members within the party have said the president needs to honor Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops.

Mr. Obama is expected to send between 30,000 and 35,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and promise to bolster the force commitments from other nations. He is also likely to outline the terms for an exit of U.S. forces from the now 8-year-old war.

The Senate’s second-ranking Republican, however, said that any talk of an “exit strategy” for U.S. forces will only empower enemies and that the troops should be deployed immediately.

“Talk of an exit strategy is exactly the wrong way to go,” Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I certainly hope the president doesn’t do that, because all that does is signal to the enemies and also to our allies, to the folks in Pakistan as well as the Afghanis, that we’re not there to stay until the mission is accomplished.”

Recent polling has shown the public split on whether to increase troop levels or withdraw forces, and Mr. Obama’s popularity has again started dipping in relation to his handling of Afghanistan after a summer slide for his handling of health care reform.

Support within his party is likely to be crucial as he pitches his plan to the American public, though it was far from certain, with some Democrats insisting that more Afghan forces are needed while others say they may oppose a U.S. troop surge based on cost.

“The key element here is not just more troops, the key element is shifting the operations to the Afghanis. And if that can be done, then I would support the president,” said Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Also Sunday, Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the billions of dollars needed to support a troop surge over several years could be better used, and he said he may oppose the president’s plan.

“I have to see what $400 billion or $500 billion, $600 billion, $700 billion, over a decade, for this effort, will cost us on education, on our efforts to build the entire economy. And when you look at it that way, I come to a different conclusion than he does,” Mr. Obey said on CNN.

Mr. Obey’s fiscal concerns were echoed by Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“What is the capacity of our country to finance this particular type of situation as opposed to other ways of fighting al Qaeda and the war against terror?” Mr. Lugar said on CNN.

Republican lawmakers have been largely united in their support for Gen. McChrystal’s call for more troops and have used the leaking of the general’s recommendations to highlight Mr. Obama’s lengthy decision-making process.

“The whole world is watching what we’re doing there,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We’re going to put measurements and benchmarks on the Afghan government, but we’re going to have troops in Afghanistan to win the conflict. I hope he says that, without any uncertain terms.”

Mr. Obama “really has to regain the approval of the American people as well as people around the world that we are on the right course,” Mr. Lugar said.

Although much of the focus has been on increased troop levels, the president is also expected to outline broader strategy, including how he plans to train Afghan forces, a point about which Mr. Levin was cautiously skeptical, wondering how sending U.S. troops would bolster Afghanistan’s military.

“The issue is how would additional combat forces … increase the speed of the buildup of the Afghan army. And that’s what I think the president is going to need to explain,” he told CNN.

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