Sen. Barack Obama “has not set a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said his foreign policy advisor Susan Rice this week.
On Saturday the Democratic presidential candidate landed in Kabul on his first visit to that country, one of the stops in his week-long overseas tour.
Obama has set a 16-month exit timetable for Iraq, although he'd consider leaving an unspecified number of troops there as a “residual force.”
But this week, the focus of the presidential debate shifted to Afghanistan. Both Obama and his Republican foe, Sen. John McCain, called for more troops to be dispatched to join the 36,000 U.S. personnel already there.
In all likelihood, the Democrats will have comfortable majorities in the new Congress next January, and could possibly have Obama as president to work with.
If so, the responsibility would be entirely on the Democrats to decide the Afghanistan strategy and how to pay for military operations there.
Given the war weariness among the American people, are Democratic leaders convinced that they have enough popular support for a long term, nation-building commitment to Afghanistan?
Since taking over the House in 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has deftly managed to see that funding to Iraq and Afghanistan continues, despite her own opposition to the war in Iraq.
Anti-war Democrats have misgivings
At this point, only a few House Democrats are voicing misgivings about a prolonged stay in Afghanistan.
On Thursday Pelosi signaled a sense of wariness about the duration of the Afghanistan engagement.
“The commitment to Afghanistan is a real one,” Pelosi said at her weekly press briefing, but then she added a cautionary note. “The Afghan people are not receptive to long-term, long-time visitors to their country. They are very independent, self-reliant people. So I would hope that whatever approach we take there to fight terrorism… will be something that would be finite.”
There is an “Out of Iraq Caucus” among House Democrats, but there’s no “Out of Afghanistan Caucus.”
When Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., a founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus, was asked this week whether there would be a similarly themed Afghanistan caucus a year from today, he said, “That’s a damned good question.”
The Out of Iraq Caucus will be meeting next week to air its concerns over U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and about the apparent unanimity of Obama and McCain in continuing that participation over the next four years.
“If we are going to do something constructive about Afghanistan, we should have done it seven years ago,” said anti-war Democrat Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif.
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes and I am going to be watching very carefully before I am at all supportive of sending our troops over there to get killed.”
“What is their mission?” she asked of the U.S. troops Obama or McCain would send to Afghanistan. “What is the exit strategy?”
Chance of success in Afghanistan?
Woolsey said she is not at all convinced that the United States could be any more successful in establishing stability in Afghanistan than it has been in Iraq.
She added that if Afghanistan “was the right war, it would have been the right war five or six years ago. My fear is we go from Afghanistan to Pakistan because that’s where al-Qaida has run. So is that the next ‘right war’? I say no.”
Delahunt says that war fatigue has worn away people’s patience with both Iraq and Afghanistan. “They’re tired,” he said of his constituents in Massachusetts.
“They do make the distinction between the wars, but there is the overarching sense of ‘when is it going to be over? When are we going to be able to address domestic needs?’ And ‘it’ does include Afghanistan.”
But since the Democrats became the majority in the House in 2007, Delahunt and other members of the Out of Iraq Caucus have been marginalized and ineffective in stopping the funding of military operations.
Can't afford to fail
In contrast to skeptics like Woolsey and Delahunt, other congressional Democrats stress the belief that the United States can’t afford to fail in Afghanistan.
“We would be derelict in our duty if we didn’t do everything we can to prevent the people that planned the Sept. 11 attacks from having sanctuary anywhere, whether it is in Afghanistan or Pakistan,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee.
How does Tauscher define success in Afghanistan?
It will be when “the duly elected government of the people can govern and can control their borders and can manage their country in a way that promotes the well-being of their citizens — so that their country is not a place where bad guys can congregate and plan to do bad things,” she said.
And is that success feasible in Afghanistan? “It has to be,” said Tauscher.
Need for more troops in Afghanisntan
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D- Mich., said that “as we bring troops home (from Iraq) and we rotate them, we’ve got to find a way to provide more troops” for Afghanistan. He added that it’s “critically important that NATO step up as well” so that more of the reinforcements come from Germany, Britain, and other NATO members.
“Our troops are overstressed,” Levin said, “We’ve got to take that into account; we can’t just move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.”
Is there a larger concern among his constituents about an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan? “Not yet,” Levin answered.
And is war fatigue about Iraq spilling over into fatigue about Afghanistan? “Not yet,” he said again.
Americans can make the distinction between Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. “They sense it for a number of reasons. They sense that we don’t have that sectarian division in Afghanistan the way that there is in Iraq. We’ve got a government in Afghanistan which is more unified. We’ve got an army in Afghanistan which is motivated, an army filled with warriors that hate the Taliban.”
Need for nation-building in Pakistan, too
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., pointed out this week that nation-building in Afghanistan inevitably must entail considerable long-term nation building with its next-door neighbor: Pakistan.
Along with Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar (whose photo appears in a new Obama TV ad released this week), Biden has proposed a bill to spend $7.5 billion over the next five years on nation-building operations in Pakistan, including constructing roads, drilling wells (for water, not oil) and establishing non-Islamic schools.
Obama is a co-sponsor of the Biden-Lugar bill.
If Obama wins the presidency, do not expect Afghanistan skeptics such as Woolsey to have much sway in the first days of his administration.
At least for the first year, Obama would likely have his way in designing the Afghanistan commitment. And congressional Democrats would have to decide whether they were willing to pay for it.