Not so fast on Afghanistan, top Democrat warns
John Byrne
Published: Wednesday February 18, 2009

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Conventional wisdom appears to be that sending more troops to Afghanistan is a good idea -- and that President George W. Bush's decision to divert troops from Afghanistan to Iraq was bad.

But a progressive Senate Democrat isn't so sure. In a subtle rebuke to President Barack Obama's decision yesterday to deploy 17,000 more US troops to the war-torn country, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) questioned whether an increased US presence was a good idea.

"After years of a failed foreign policy which distracted us from our top national security priority of defeating al Qaeda and its affiliates, I am encouraged by President Obama's focus on Afghanistan where the 9/11 attacks originated," Feingold said in a statement that received little to no attention Tuesday. "But we need to make sure we have a strategy in place for Afghanistan that will actually work before we commit thousands more U.S. troops. A military escalation without a strategy to address the complex problems facing Afghanistan and the region could alienate the Afghan people and make it much more difficult to achieve our top national security goal of defeating al Qaeda."

Feingold hasn't made a secret of his skepticism of augmenting US troops in the country the Soviet Union once tried to hold.

"If the devastating policies of the [Bush] administration have proved anything, it's that we need to ask tough questions before deploying our brave service members – and that we need to be suspicious of Washington 'group think,'" he wrote in a Christian Science Monitor editorial last October. "Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for failure."

He suggested that sending more US troops made more sense in 2006 than it does today.

"Sending more US troops made sense in, say, 2006, and it may still make sense today," he wrote. "The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated badly over the past year, however, despite a larger US and coalition military presence.

"We need to ask: After seven years of war, will more troops help us achieve our strategic goals in Afghanistan?" he continued. "How many troops would be needed and for how long? Is there a danger that a heavier military footprint will further alienate the population, and, if so, what are the alternatives? And – with the lessons of Iraq in mind – will this approach advance our top national security priority, namely defeating Al Qaeda?"

"We must target Al Qaeda aggressively, and we cannot allow Afghanistan to be used again as a launching pad for attacks on America," he added. "It is far from clear, however, that a larger military presence there would advance these goals."

Feingold isn't the only skeptic. In a piece that made the cover of Newsweek last month, veteran war correspondent John Barry and Evan Thomas questioned whether a decision to up troops in Afghanistan could turn the mountainous region into a flaming 1965 jungle.

"A wave of reports, official and unofficial, from American and foreign (including Afghan) diplomats and soldiers, present and former, all seem to agree: the situation in Afghanistan is bad and getting worse," Thomas and Barry wrote. "Some four decades ago, American presidents became accustomed to hearing gloomy reports like that from Vietnam, although the public pronouncements were usually rosier. John F. Kennedy worried to his dying day about getting stuck in a land war in Asia; LBJ was haunted by nightmares about "Uncle Ho." In the military, now as then, there are a growing number of doubters. But the default switch for senior officers in the U.S. military is "can do, sir!" and that seems to be the light blinking now. In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, when in doubt, escalate. There are now about 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration appear to agree that the number should be twice that a year or so from now."

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