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Afghanistan Strategy Troublesome to Some Lawmakers

December 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ahead of President Barack Obama's address to the nation, Gwen Ifill speaks with policymakers to gauge reaction to the president's Afghanistan strategy that calls for deploying 30,000 additional troops.
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JIM LEHRER: President Obama faced a critical moment today on his new Afghan war strategy, after a three-month review. He planned to address the nation tonight from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Gwen Ifill has our lead story report.

GWEN IFILL: The president is expected to announce tonight that he’s sending 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan, with the first contingent on their way by Christmas. Those first Marines are bound for Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold.

Marine Captain Andrew Terrell is there now.

CAPT. ANDREW TERRELL: We’re going to change the dynamic in the area by bringing more forces in here, expanding our influence, and making this area secure enough where people feel comfortable to move back into this part of the town.

GWEN IFILL: The president is also expected to ask NATO allies for at least 5,000 additional soldiers. That would bring the total number of foreign troops in Afghanistan to almost 150,000, including 100,000 Americans.

Tonight’s address will include a plan for U.S. forces to begin leaving Afghanistan before the president’s first term ends.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs described the exit strategy this morning.

ROBERT GIBBS: We’re not going to be there forever, and this can’t be open-ended. We have to talk about transitioning our forces out and putting forward the Afghans to provide their own security and stability.

GWEN IFILL: Many of the new American units will focus on building Afghan security. The NATO command will train Afghan soldiers and police, with the goal of having 230,000 in place by next October.

On the streets of Kabul today, some said that is the right focus.

NAZIR AHMAD: Increasing foreign troops in Afghanistan will not change anything. It will remain the same as usual. It would be better to strengthen the Afghan people, national army and police, because every country is rebuilt by its own people.

GWEN IFILL: Afghan President Hamid Karzai was briefed on the new U.S. plan in an hour-long videoconference with President Obama.

But Mr. Obama must also persuade U.S. lawmakers that the wider Afghan effort is worth it. And it was clear today that could be a tough sell, especially in the president’s own party.

Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern:

REP. JIM MCGOVERN, D-Mass.: I want to first commend the president for thinking long and hard about — about this issue. And that kind of deliberation is a welcome change from the previous administration. Unfortunately, if the reports are true, I believe he has reached the wrong conclusion.

Mixed reactions from lawmakers

Sen. John McCain
R-Arizona
The way that you win wars is to break the enemy's will, not to announce dates that you are leaving.

GWEN IFILL: Most Republicans have urged the president to send more troops.

But Arizona Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama's opponent in last fall's election, offered a mixed review.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: The way that you win wars is to break the enemy's will, not to announce dates that you are leaving. I am pleased that we are sending an additional 30,000 troops, apparently, and there is a strategy that -- for the military action that I think will succeed, modeled on the surge in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: The cost of the war effort also loomed today as a growing issue. Republican Congressman Walter Jones represents a North Carolina district that includes the huge Marine base at Camp Lejeune.

REP. WALTER JONES, R-N.C.: When we were home during the Thanksgiving holidays, I can not tell you the number of people -- and I'm not exaggerating -- that said, what are we trying to accomplish in Afghanistan? How about our country? We can't even fix the streets in your district, Congressman.

We need to start thinking about that. The cost of this is astronomical. The cost to the wounded, both physically and mentally, is going to be astronomical. We have got to have an end point to what we're trying to accomplish.

GWEN IFILL: In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid said, Democrats understand the need to address war costs.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., majority leader: I'm very happy, for the first time since all this war stuff started, we have made a decision to pay for things. As you know, we have been responsible. We included the war funding in our budget.

GWEN IFILL: But Senator Carl Levin, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said he thinks a separate spending bill will be needed next year to pay for it all.

Congressional leaders also met late this afternoon with the president at the White House, before he headed off to West Point.

And we're joined now by two lawmakers just back from that White House meeting, Congresswoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York who chairs the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, and congressman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen -- I'm sorry -- Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida, who is the senior Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, since I fumbled your name, I will start with you.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN, R-Fla.: I do it every day. Don't worry about it.

Too early to announce withdrawal

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
R-Florida
I like the way that he framed the issue, as not only Afghanistan as a sole unit, but coupled with Pakistan, because I think that you have got to look at that as a theater of operations.

GWEN IFILL: Great.

What did you think what the president had to say to you at the White House this afternoon?

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: I support the president's mission. I support the surge of -- of troops in Afghanistan. I like the way that he framed the issue, as not only Afghanistan as a sole unit, but coupled with Pakistan, because I think that you have got to look at that as a theater of operations.

What I did not agree with him on is already having a drawdown date of July of 2011. I think that that sends the wrong signal. And I asked him about that. And I asked him why we're not using words like victory and benchmarks for success. And he says he will be elaborating on that in his speech tonight.

But, overall, I think it was a thoughtful decision. He came at it by hearing all points of views. And I think it's the right time to get those additional troops and to let the Afghan people know and the military, and Karzai, that he's got to root out corruption and he's got to beef up his troops. It's not an open-ended check. And it's not an open-ended commitment.

GWEN IFILL: I want to go through those parts bit by bit.

But, Congresswoman Lowey, I want to ask you first what you thought about this 30,000 troop number.

REP. NITA LOWEY, D-N.Y.: Well, first of all, the president was very persuasive. And I hope Ileana's comments will lead, for the most part, to bipartisan support for the president.

Let's face it. He didn't choose this war. It -- we have been there for eight years. We have spent over a trillion dollars. And I think it was very, very important that he emphasized the concern he had for sending young men and women abroad, but he also made it clear that this is a national security issue.

We cannot have a vacuum in Afghanistan, especially with Pakistan next door with nuclear weapons. So, there are questions that he discussed. And I know there will be a continuing discussion about corruption in the government. How do you work with Karzai and the ministers to really make a change?

And Ileana talked about the date. I think that's very important. President Karzai and the Afghan people have to understand that we're not there indefinitely. We're there to train the troops, to train the security forces, to transition to a government that is moving in the right direction.

I have worked with the National Solidarity Program, doing amazing things in villages throughout Afghan -- Afghanistan. I have worked with the Global Development Program, hiring 10,000 Afghans to work in agriculture.

But there are tremendous obstacles, like the corruption that we both mentioned, that have to be overcome. And I'm hoping we can have bipartisan support for the president's plan.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen? Did you detect in that room today that there is bipartisan support building for this? I noticed some -- a lot of positive comments today from Republicans, except for that timetable/benchmark question you raised.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Absolutely.

And we had a lot of the -- Democratic -- the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership, the chairman of the lead committees, as well as the -- the ranking committee members. And -- and all of them -- all of us come from different areas and we have different concerns.

But I think that we understand that being successful as we beat down al-Qaida and the Taliban and other extremists that are -- that are going to take over swathes of land is -- is perilous to our national security. So, we must be successful.

I worry -- and I don't want to keep drilling down on this date -- but I do worry about that time certain when we start to be drawing down troops, because I think that it sends a signal to the very people that we want to defeat that they can just wait us out.

And I know that this is a hard sell for the American people. Maybe this is the trade-off that the president needed to make, as we do the surge to make the commitment that we are going to draw down. We're drawing down in Iraq. And we have been successful there with a limited mission.

And -- but I worry about that kind of signal and -- and whether we're telegraphing an exit strategy too soon, before we see those benchmarks for success being met by the Afghan security forces themselves.

Persuasion needed from Obama

Rep. Nita Lowey
D-New York
My colleagues are honest, good people who have real questions. I have questions about the cooperation of our allies.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Lowey, we have heard from members of your party, Jim McGovern earlier in the piece, Barbara Lee, others, who have said, we should just turn and leave Afghanistan right now and that any more money spent on this war is money poorly spent.

What do you say to your colleagues?

REP. NITA LOWEY: I think it's very important that the president give a powerful, persuasive speech this evening.

And then I know he will come up to the Capitol to talk to my colleagues. My colleagues are honest, good people who have real questions. I have questions about the cooperation of our allies. How many troops are they going to send? This is a national security issue, not just for the United States of America, but for the whole world.

If there is a vacuum in Afghanistan, and we have Pakistan next door with al-Qaida and Mullah Omar, this is a threat to all of us. So, this...

GWEN IFILL: Do 5,000 -- pardon me -- do 5,000 NATO troops sound like enough to you?

REP. NITA LOWEY: No, I'm hoping it would be more, because, again, it has to be a cooperative effort. We can't just do this alone.

But let's face it. The United States is the leader, and we have to lead and we have to work with Karzai. We have to work with what we have. And we have to identify, as the president said, those ministers that have worked on the NSP program, the Global Development Program. We're bringing agricultural experts in there.

Now, I'm not blind to all the challenges. The president was dealt this hand, and he's trying to make the best of a hand. Remember, again, I said at the beginning we have been there eight years, spending a trillion dollars, and things are getting worse. So, he has consulted with every -- every group I can think of, trying to come up with the best proposal. And he's going to have to sell it to Democrats and Republicans.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: I would like to disagree with my -- my colleague when she says that he was dealt this hand.

Actually, President Obama has been very clear by saying that Afghanistan is a war of necessity. He doesn't say that he was dealt this hand. He's always said -- and even during this campaign -- that's where we should have been. And so I don't think that he can blame his predecessor and say he was dealt that hand.

GWEN IFILL: Let me attempt to move on, because there are a lot -- a lot more I want...

REP. NITA LOWEY: Can I just clarify?

Footing the bill?

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
R-Florida
We will have some honest discussions about how we are going to be paying for this.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me just move on to this one next point, because I asked you, Ms. Lowey, about what your Democratic colleagues have said. And I now want to ask Ms. Ros-Lehtinen the same question about some of the criticisms from some of your Republican colleagues.

They have said this costs too much. I think that the price tag put on this today was $25 billion to $30 billion in 2010. How should the administration be paying for this?

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, and not only is it costly in terms of dollars. It's costly in something that -- to which we cannot assign a monetary figure. And that's lives lost. It's our treasure. It's our best and brightest. So, that's a -- that's a far greater cast than a million and a billion and a trillion. That's something that is irreplaceable.

And we will have some honest discussions about how we are going to be paying for this. But it's -- it's interesting that, when it comes to other domestic issues, the cost of those issues are not as important. But, when it comes to national security, all of the sudden, folks on the other side of the aisle become deficit hawks and -- and want to be very careful about paying for it.

I do want to be conscious of the deficit as well. But I want to do that for domestic concerns as well. I wish that there were that carryover for -- for all aspects of our spending priorities.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you both briefly one final questions. And that is, one of the words, the terms that people run away from in this debate is nation-building.

I will start you with, Ms. Lowey.

And then you can have the final word, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen.

How do we know the difference between nation-building and how -- and -- and finishing the job?

REP. NITA LOWEY: Well, I have to make it very clear that we don't expect that, at the end of this process, we're going to have a United States of America in Afghanistan and that all their institutions will function as the way we would like to see them function.

But it's very important that the government in Afghanistan take hold of the corruption issue, work with the provincial governments, trying to establish a parliament that has some authority, and bring some confidence to the average person in Afghanistan that corruption isn't rampant.

We have to worry about the fact that the average person is out of work, isn't educated, and the government has to build that confidence. And it may not be a perfect nation, but we have to move it in the right direction.

And we have appropriated $2.7 billion for economic development. Until this point, the total number is about $14 billion. So, we have a lot of work to do. And the president will have to present a persuasive case to the American people.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, do you see a persuasive case being made for or against nation-building as a part of the solution?

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I think that -- that our fighting men and women, the best troops that any nation could have, are doing the job that they're assigned to do. And they're not there to -- to nation-build.

They're there to -- to make sure that every population area is safe, secure, that we hold it, that we train the troops to hold on to their successes. And -- and I congratulate those troops. They're the ones that are going to make this mission a reality and a success. And they will do what their commander in chief, President Obama, asks for them to do.

GWEN IFILL: All right.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: And they want to know that our nation supports them in their mission. That's important.

GWEN IFILL: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican, Nita Lowey, Democrat, thank you both very much.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you.