The Democratic chairmen of several key committees overseeing war policy, including the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees, say they back the military’s request for a troop buildup in Afghanistan - despite House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s stance that Congress will not support deploying more U.S. forces.
At a White House meeting this week, participants said about half of the chairmen from the dozen House and Senate panels involved in military issues told President Obama that they supported ordering more troops to Afghanistan.
“A number of us commented that we don’t believe you can prevail with a counterterrorism plan alone. You have to have a more comprehensive strategy,” said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat and chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who attended the meeting.
A raging debate on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue splits Democrats and pits supporters of a counter-terrorism plan that relies on drone strikes and special forces missions to hit al Qaeda targets, mostly in Pakistan, against those favoring a prolonged counterinsurgency strategy with a massive troop surge to beat back the Taliban and hold al Qaeda at bay in Afghanistan.
The most public face of the troop-surge camp is Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, who has recommended at least 40,000 additional U.S. troops to reinforce the 68,000 already in the war zone.
“I think we need to follow the recommendation of Gen. McChrystal,” Mr. Reyes said. “But ultimately it is the president’s decision. What he decides, we have to respect.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, who attended the White House meeting, also strongly advocates for Gen. McChrystal’s plan. He sent a six-page letter to Mr. Obama earlier this month that he said implored the president to “give the general what he needs.”
Others, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard L. Berman, say they are exploring a range of options but not taking Gen. McChrystal’s recommendation off the table.
“How do you not look at that and the alternatives?” said Mr. Berman, California Democrat.
Republicans have been the most vocal proponents of a troop buildup, and the more liberal members of the Democratic caucus remain highly skeptical of a prolonged war in Afghanistan as they weigh the growing anti-war sentiment in the country against campaign pledges to focus on war efforts there..
Still, the increasingly hawkish stance of some top Democrats cast doubt on Mrs. Pelosi’s assertion last month that “I don’t think there’s much support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in Congress.”
When asked Thursday if she would support a decision by the president to send more troops, she did not commit herself. “When we see what the president’s suggestion is, what his plan is, then we will respond to that,” the California Democrat said.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, special assistant to the speaker, said the Democratic leadership does not yet know where the caucus lines up on the troop issue.
“It’s too early to say,” said Mr. Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat. “Speaking for myself, I think a lot of people are waiting to hear the president’s recommendation and take into account the views of Gen. McChrystal and other national security experts.”
Congress will have an opportunity to vote up or down on whatever plan Mr. Obama offers when lawmakers take up an anticipated supplemental war-spending bill, which will be needed to pay for the fight regardless of whether more troops are deployed.
The Pentagon expects to run out of war funds sometime in the spring, and sending an additional 40,000 troops would cost about $40 billion, according to congressional estimates.
Rep. David R. Obey, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he is highly skeptical of committing more troops. He said the lack of support from Pakistan in fighting al Qaeda and the Herculean task of nation-building in Afghanistan make the prospect for winning bleak.
“The problem with increasing the number of troops is that we become the lightening rod, and our presence runs the risk of inciting more anti-American sentiment that can become a recruiting tool for the very forces we seek to curtail,” the Wisconsin Democrat said. “The threat to the American homeland is posed by al Qaeda, not by the loosely-defined Taliban. Yet the more U.S. troops we send to Afghanistan to fight the insurgency, the more we risk hardening them into an implacable enemy.”
Despite that assessment, Rep. John P. Murtha, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, said Mr. Obama still has the political capital needed to win passage of whatever funding he requests for the war, including spending on more troops.
“I think anything he decides, with his popularity, if he explains it and he explains he has a strategy, and we can measure the strategy, I think he can get it through,” said Mr. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat. “It may take more Republicans than Democrats, depending on what it is.”
Mr. Murtha said he favors increasing the number of troops sent to train the Afghanistan army to take over the fight. But he said he would consider supporting whatever plan the president puts forward.
“This is a tough decision,” he said. “No matter what the president does, there is going to be a lot of opposition.”