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In Congress, ‘A Lot Of Angst’ Over Afghanistan

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) before testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. Mullen told the panel that success in Afghanistan "probably means more forces."
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Above: Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) before testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. Mullen told the panel that success in Afghanistan "probably means more forces."

President Obama said Wednesday that there is no "immediate decision pending" on sending another new wave of U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but Congress is already bracing for the move.

A much-anticipated request for more troops, expected to come in the next few weeks from the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has created anxiety on Capitol Hill and comes at a difficult time for the Obama administration.

Obama's relations with Congress are getting more contentious amid the angry tussle over his health care agenda. And as a politician who opposed the surge in Iraq, Obama faces a tough sell in trying to push through another surge of American troops after an alarming surge in violence in Afghanistan this summer.

"There's a lot of angst about it," says Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington state who serves on the House Armed Services Committee. "The president will have to make the case on this."

Privately, the concerns are even sharper. "You hear a lot of people saying, 'How the hell does this end?' " says one congressional staffer who works on Afghanistan. "Nobody really seems to have a very good answer."

Obama, speaking to reporters after a White House meeting with the Canadian prime minister, said he would deliberate before requesting more troops and consult with foreign leaders, military commanders and others.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday that success there "probably means more forces."

But a growing number of Democrats are expressing skepticism about any escalation.

The powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, surprised some of his colleagues last week with his firmness in arguing for implementing a stepped-up training program for the Afghan army before entertaining another troop increase.

Some of the pushback might be a little bit of posturing, as members and staffers concede that Democrats are unlikely to block an additional troop deployment if it is authorized by the Obama administration and military commanders on the ground.

That doesn't mean that lawmakers are girding for an all-out battle with the White House on this, the staffer adds. "I think ultimately both Republicans and Democrats will go along with anything Obama asks, but there will be a lot of heartache on both sides."

Smith agrees that Democrats need to give Obama and McChrystal more time to implement their new strategy.

"If Gen. McChrystal, who is on the ground over there, says we need more troops on the ground over there to maintain security, we should listen to him," Smith says. "We need to give him a chance."

Republicans may end up being Obama's best allies when it comes to boosting the troop presence. Former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has made it clear that he believes more soldiers are "vitally needed" in Afghanistan.

But there is growing frustration, particularly among Republicans, that McChrystal has not appeared before Congress recently to detail how his strategy is evolving for responding to the heightened Taliban insurgency.

"We haven't heard any kind of schedule for Gen. McChrystal to come to the Hill to tell us what's going on there," says Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who serves on the Armed Services Committee. "My concern right now is that the biggest obstacle is the president telling him to hold off on requesting more troops because he can't afford to politically."

Shuster recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, where he met with a number of military commanders. He says that if these generals had their way, that troop request could be very high, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 soldiers. "It's not going to be well-received from many quarters in Congress, particularly the Democratic Party, but even some Republicans," Shuster says.

The Obama administration has not offered any clues to what size increase it is considering. In the early days of his administration, Obama approved sending 21,000 additional troops to boost the total U.S. force to 68,000 by the end of this year. There are also 38,000 NATO soldiers from other countries.

The recent disputed Afghan election has only complicated Obama's decision.

Obama's strategy relies on accelerating the training of the Afghan army and police force, but allegations of rampant vote-rigging and ballot tampering have cast doubts on the legitimacy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration.

The official results gave Karzai a narrow majority with 54 percent of the vote, but election officials have discarded hundreds of illegal ballots. International election monitors say that more than 1 million ballots are suspect. Some of the worst corruption seems to have come in areas where Karzai made alliances with powerful local warlords.

"Now the government has even less credibility with us or the Afghan people," says the congressional staffer. "Karzai brought in a rogues' gallery of the worst warlords he could find, and he still had to rig the election to get barely above 50 percent. This is what we had to send people to fight and die for?"

Even if Congress does not fight an Obama decision to send additional troops, the House and Senate could end up placing some conditions on the necessary funding.

"A short-term increase does not necessarily mean an endless commitment," says Smith. "I'm not talking about an open-ended commitment."

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