Congressmen troubled by war progress as funding vote nears

WASHINGTON–Connecticut lawmakers say that Gen. David Petraeus, tapped by President Barack Obama last week to be the new Afghanistan war commander, is the best possible choice to execute the Administration’s strategy in the nine-year-old war. But whether that strategy is a good one, they are not so sure.

Petraeus was on Capitol Hill Tuesday for confirmation hearings and his nomination was quickly approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee, paving the way for him to succeed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was fired last week over derisive comments he and his aides made about top U.S. civilian leaders.

The change in military leadership–along with a looming House vote on a war funding bill–has highlighted growing unease in Congress about Obama’s Afghanistan strategy.

“I was more than willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt,” said Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, who is also chair of the Democratic Caucus. But now, Larson said he is “leaning” toward casting a no vote on the war supplemental bill, which will fund both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and could come up for a vote in the House later this week.

“It doesn’t seem as if a military victory is achievable on the ground,” Larson said. “We have to look at a serious wind-down and exit strategy.”

Said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District: “I’m extremely concerned. The situation seems to be deteriorating. I have less faith in [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai than I ever have. I’ve never been convinced that a nation-building strategy will be successful in Afghanistan.” Himes said he was not sure how he would vote on the supplemental bill yet, because the details have not been hashed out, but he added that he’d be hard pressed to vote against a bill to fund U.S. troops despite his misgivings about the policy.

Other lawmakers were not as harsh in their assessments, but they are wary nonetheless. Obama’s Afghanistan strategy involves sending thousands of new U.S. troops to the country and mounting an aggressive counter-insurgency effort. Many Democrats initially backed that effort, particularly because Obama included a July 2011 target date for the beginning of a troop drawdown.

But June has been the deadliest month so far for NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, with 100 casualties to date, including 54 Americans, according to the independent website Meanwhile, there’s been a steady trickle of headlines about corruption inside the Karzai government. And a new report released Monday  from the inspector general overseeing Afghanistan reconstruction concludes that the NATO rating system for Afghan army and police has overstated the readiness of these security forces, further exacerbating concerns about this central element of the war strategy.

“Troop training is woefully behind schedule. That’s a real problem,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee. “That’s obviously a key to what happened in Iraq. Once you stood up security forces that were able to guarantee the country’s own sovereignty, that was sort of the exit strategy in Iraq. And I think that’s what the end game is” with Afghanistan as well.

Still, Courtney noted that Obama’s military team has not fully executed the Afghanistan plan yet, with another 10,000 to 15,000 troops still to be deployed. And the increase in casualties is to be expected given the decision to deepen U.S. commitment. “There’s no question that when you are going to go out and start expanding the zone of contact, which is part of the counterinsurgency principles, you’re going to have more engagement with the enemy,” Courtney said.

“I guess really the question is, is it premature to try and judge the success of the policy before it’s been implemented?” he said. “That’s what I’m sort of wrestling with.”

Courtney said that Petraeus’s track record in Iraq bodes well for his stewardship of the Afghanistan situation. But he also said he has told House Democratic leaders that he wants a reaffirmation of the July 2011 drawdown date in the war spending bill. Asked if he would vote no if that’s not included, Courtney said he needed to see the details before declaring his position.

Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and Chris Murphy, D-5th District, also both declined to say how they planned to vote until more details about the legislation were available. DeLauro has expressed concerns about the Afghanistan conflict in the past but would not discuss her position now because the House will not take it up until later this week.

Later Tuesday, her office emailed a copy of a December press release in which DeLauro said it will be “very difficult for me to support funding for an increased military commitment to fight the Taliban and various insurgent groups that are bringing instability to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” citing corruption in the Karzai government and strains on both the military and the federal budget.

Murphy said that he has supported the president’s plan so far because he sees Afghanistan as a special threat, calling it a “perfect training ground” for terrorists. But, he added, “my leash is getting shorter and shorter.” He said in particular he would like to see the White House take a harder line with the Karzai government in clamping down on corruption.

The House bill currently includes $37.47 billion to pay for the two conflicts, as well as some non-military assistance for the State Department. House leaders may add billions more for other items, including Haiti disaster aid, emergency money for schools, and extra funds for border security, although Larson said he was hoping for a “clean” war bill that excluded unrelated spending.

Larson said he voted in favor of last year’s war spending bill because it had strings attached that would lead to an exit strategy. And he says the U.S. has a responsibility to stay in some more limited way, to try to find Osama bin Laden and root out Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

But he’s very concerned that U.S. allies are not doing their fair share and the broader military goals are out of reach. “We ought to send a message to our troops that there is an end game, that there is an end in sight,” he said, “and to the rest of the world.”

The Senate already passed its version of the bill in May. Connecticut’s two U.S. Sens. Christopher Dodd, D, and Joseph Lieberman, an Independent, both supported that measure.