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Doubts Surface Among Democrats on Afghan War Strategy

September 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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During testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Afghan war is growing more complicated and may require more troops. Margaret Warner reports on doubts among some Democrats on the strategy for Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: Next, growing doubts in President Obama’s own party about the Afghan war. Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: The administration’s senior military officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, went to Capitol Hill today to urge patience for the president’s stepped-up commitment in Afghanistan.

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: The president has given us a clear mission: disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida and its extremist allies, and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven again. You can’t do that from off-shore, and you can’t do that by just killing the bad guys. You have to be there, where the people are, when they need you there, and until they can provide for their own security.

MARGARET WARNER: Mullen also gave the clearest indication yet that Commanding General Stanley McChrystal is likely to recommend additional U.S. forces be sent.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: Having heard his views and having great confidence in his leadership, a properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces.

MARGARET WARNER: His comments immediately touched off a debate with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin saying Afghan security forces need to be beefed up before more U.S. troops are sent.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich.: Providing the resources needed for the Afghan army and Afghan police to become self-sufficient would demonstrate our commitment to the success of a mission that is in our national security interest, while avoiding the risks associated with a larger U.S. footprint. I believe these steps should be urgently implemented before we consider a further increase in U.S. ground combat troops beyond what is already planned to be deployed by the end of the year.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: In all due respect, Senator Levin, I’ve seen that movie before.

MARGARET WARNER: The committee’s top Republican, Senator John McCain, swiftly countered, saying the administration should request more U.S. forces and do it quickly.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Every day we delay in implementing this strategy and increasing the number of troops there, which we all know is vitally needed, puts more and more young Americans who are already there, lives in danger. I don’t think we should do that.

Growing skepticism among Democrats

MARGARET WARNER: The atmosphere in the hearing room didn't fully convey the growing skepticism over the war here among members of the president's own party. Leading Democrats are warning the White House that, based on what they're seeing on the ground in Afghanistan, they're not ready to support another increase in American troops.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: I'm convinced that we do not yet have the right calibration of this policy.

MARGARET WARNER: Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, says he thinks it's time to go back to the drawing board on the policy. He's opening hearings tomorrow to do that.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: With respect to the Kabul Karzai government, the elections that just took place, the difficulties on the border, the increased violence, the gains of the Taliban -- I mean, you can run a list -- that have to make you go back to the table and say, "OK, folks, let's re-examine this and see where we're heading."

MARGARET WARNER: If General McChrystal says he needs more troops, will they get support here?

SEN. JOHN KERRY: I think there's a -- let me speak for myself. I would be very reluctant just to rubber-stamp additional troops without this examination that I've talked about.

MARGARET WARNER: California's Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, is now calling for a timeline in Afghanistan, perhaps as short as a year.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif.: I'm not calling for an immediate withdrawal or withdrawal, but some understanding that we can deal with and evaluate progress in view of that timeline.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you have a timeline in mind?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: No, not -- I wouldn't throw out here an expressed timeline. It's not a matter of years in plural; I can say that. But in the next year perhaps, here's what we're going to accomplish, period, the end, and then America is going to go home.

A steady drop in support

MARGARET WARNER: What happened between President Obama's announcement six months ago that he was sending 21,000 more troops and today that added to Democratic doubts?

First, along with the increase in troops, U.S. casualties rose sharply. July's 45 American deaths marked the worst month in eight years of fighting, until August, when 51 Americans died. As deaths increased, public support dwindled.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll in late August, a majority of Americans polled said the war isn't worth fighting.

And the still-unresolved Afghan presidential elections last month with widespread allegations of fraud shook confidence in America's current partner in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai.

Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman, a pro-defense voice in her party, said she wouldn't support a troop increase until the corruption issue in Afghanistan is addressed. She says the Democrats' growing unease grew out of all these factors and more.

REP. JANE HARMAN, D-Calif.: I think it is lessons learned from Iraq. Many of us, certainly I, have learned many lessons from Iraq.

The second piece is results on the ground. We can see this. You go to Afghanistan. Many members of Congress have gone. I've been numerous times, but it is not a safer or more successful place at many levels.

And, three, there's no question that body bags influence all of us. I mean, we're putting our youngest lives at risk here.

MARGARET WARNER: Independent Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who split with his fellow Democrats over Iraq, is uneasy with the direction some seem headed now on Afghanistan.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN, I-Conn.: I think it's a mistake in the sense that I wish they'd wait until General McChrystal made their recommendation to the president and the president decided what he thinks is in the best interest of our country.

My hope here in the end is that, after a good debate, that President Obama asks for more American troops to be deployed to Afghanistan to win that war, that there will be bipartisan support for that. And I actually think there will be.

'America, come home'

MARGARET WARNER: But Feinstein says the anti-war sentiment among her constituents is strong and growing.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: People just don't like it. They don't want it. I think, "America, come home," is how people feel.

MARGARET WARNER: In today's hearing, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham raised the issue of public opposition to the war.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C: OK, about 55 percent of the American people in the polls said that they did not support us staying in Afghanistan. What would you tell them as to why we should?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: I'd say it is the epicenter of terrorism right now. I believe we have the right strategy. The resource requests will come in. And what I've said earlier and what I will recommend in the future is, this is how you properly resource this strategy.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: But the point I'm trying to make to the American people, you're our top military commander.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: You're our leader. You're telling us that if we -- we've got a strategy you believe in. If we get it resourced the way that General McChrystal needs, we think we can win?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: We can succeed, yes, sir.

MARGARET WARNER: Kerry, a decorated veteran from the Vietnam War, sees uncomfortable parallels with that conflict.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: I distinctly remember Lyndon Johnson repeatedly saying, "You know, we just need" -- and what General Westmoreland -- "We need a few more troops. We need more troops." I was one of those troops. And it taught me: Make sure you understand what the situation really is on the ground.

These are the -- you know, these are the pregnant questions. We have to ask them. And we do a disservice both to the country and the president if we don't ask them and look at this very, very carefully.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama yesterday promised a full debate before making any further decisions on Afghan war strategy. On Capitol Hill, he's sure to get one.