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Dems Warn Against Afghan Combat Surge

As President Obama stood on the verge of deciding how many troops to send to Afghanistan and what broad strategy to pursue, three top Democrats declared themselves opposed to sending large numbers of combat troops.

While broadly endorsing Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic shift in Afghanistan to a population-centric counterinsurgency, Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that dispatching more combat units risks feeding a Taliban propaganda machine that portrays the U.S. and NATO as occupiers, fomenting continued resistance from the country’s Pashtun population.

Instead, Levin, proposed following what he called the “British model,” outlined recently by British PM Gordon Brown, which includes intensified training, mentoring and partnering with Afghan security forces, and a modest commitment of additional British troops (around 9,500) along with more helicopters, drones and mine resistant vehicles.

He also called for roughly doubling the number of Afghan security forces to 400,000 by 2012, a year earlier than currently planned. A substantial increase in U.S. and NATO trainers would be required to pull that off, along with logistics support and more vehicles. Still, any additional infusion of American troops must be contingent on an Afghan government commitment to increase the security forces, reign in corruption, reform local level politics and reach out to reconcilable elements of the insurgency to bring them into Afghan politics.

The British model would achieve one of McChrystal’s stated aims, which is to demonstrate “a commitment to success” to the Afghan people who are worried the U.S. will abandon them once again, Levin said, speaking today at a RAND conference on Afghanistan in Washington.

But several influential House Democrats warned the administration against trying to increase US forces in Afghanistan, citing our experience in Vietnam and the risks to the economy.  Rep. Jack  Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, predicted a floor fight should Obama request many more troops.

"The public is worn out by war," Murtha said. "The troops, no matter what the military says, are exhausted."

The powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, said he thinks "we need to more narrowly focus our efforts and have a much more achievable and targeted policy in that region." Obey warned that US would otherwise run the risk of "repeating the mistakes we made in Vietnam and the Russians made in Afghanistan."

To close observers of the ongoing debate over whether to follow a counterinsurgency strategy or a counter-terrorism approach in Afghanistan, Levin’s proposal appears to somewhat split the difference. Even though he supports McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy, Levin is clearly against what has been widely reported to be a request by the Afghan commander for up to 40,000 more troops. Levin wants the Afghans to provide security for the Afghan people, not U.S. troops.

He also proposed a “Sons of Afghanistan,” program, an imitation of the “Sons of Iraq” program where insurgent fighters in Iraq who fought against the U.S., switched sides for what he called a “very modest sum.” He said such a program could “peel away” considerable numbers of “low level” fighters paid by the Taliban to plant land mines and roadside bombs and shoot at American troops. “Offering these fighters jobs and amnesty for past acts could sharply reduce the size of the insurgency, just as the Sons of Iraq effort did in Iraq.” Sen. John Kerry made a similar proposal earlier this week.

The 2010 defense bill, signed yesterday by Obama, contains a provision allowing commanders in Afghanistan to use Commanders Emergency Response Program funds to pay Afghan insurgents to stop fighting. British Gen. Graham Lamb is developing a plan to reintegrate reconcilable Taliban fighters, he said.

Levin took a few swipes at the media for covering the debate over Afghan policy as a dramatic conflict between field commander and president. That drama is fueled by “some” in Washington who toss out a “cheap and easy lines” such as “dithering” or claiming President Obama is afraid to make tough decisions, “in an effort to push him to immediately, indeed automatically, endorse recommendations from a general who is highly capable, but whose focus is understandably more narrow than that of Secretary Gates or President Obama.” Obama must make decisions based on what is best for U.S. national security. “We should condemn the efforts to hem in the president with inflammatory rhetoric to a rapid timetable for decisions.”

He quoted from McChrystal’s own strategic assessment that said: “Focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely.” The key point, according to Levin, is shifting the strategy in Afghanistan to focus on providing security to the population.

Colin Clark contributed to this article.

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