WASHINGTON – Top lawmakers sparred Sunday over the timing of President Barack Obama’s decision on how to move ahead in Afghanistan, with Republicans urging a quick move to boost troop levels and Democrats counseling patience.
In partisan displays, senators generally agreed on the need to support whatever Afghan government emerges from a Nov. 7 run-off election between President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah. But they differed on exactly how to do that and when.
Republicans said Obama must sign off soon on a recommendation from the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to substantially increase the number of American troops there by as many as 40,000 or more. Democrats warned against a hasty decision on any increase.
“Clearly, time is of the essence here,” said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican. “I’m afraid that with every passing day we risk the future success of the mission.”
“I think it’s taken too long,” added Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “Why not follow the advice of his hand-picked general?”
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP nominee for president last year, said that “every day we delay will be a delay in this strategy succeeding.” The deteriorating situation “argues for a rapid decision,” he said.
Obama has had McChrystal’s recommendation for weeks but has yet to decide on putting it in place even after numerous strategy sessions with senior aides. The White House has said the president will not be rushed, but suggested a decision will be made soon.
None of the Republicans would second a claim made last week by former Vice President Dick Cheney that Obama is “dithering” in making a decision, but they agreed that continued delay would endanger the 68,000 U.S. soldiers now on the ground in Afghanistan.
“I would never want to call my president dithering,” Hatch said. He stressed, though, that “they need these troops, there is no question about it. We’re exposing them without the proper help that they have just got to have. … I think it’s a mistake.”
Distancing himself from Cheney, McCain also said he “wouldn’t use that language.” But, he added, “The sooner we implement the strategy the more we will able to ensure their (troops’) safety.”
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lashed out at Cheney’s criticism, which came in a speech on Wednesday while accepting an award from a conservative national security group.
“I thought that comments of the former vice president were totally out of bounds,” said Levin, D-Mich. “I don’t think he has any credibility left with the American people in any event. But I think it is really wrong. … The president needs to make the right decision.”
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., another member of the Armed Services Committee, also disagreed.
“The process that this administration is using is, I think, is a very proper and smart process,” he said. “This deliberative process is what we need because we’re going to end up living with the results for some time.”
In addition to differing on the timing of the decision, lawmakers were divided by party over on what it should be. Republicans wholeheartedly endorsed McChrystal’s appeal while Democrats were more skeptical.
Levin, who has urged that the Afghan security forces be built up before any increase in U.S. combat troops, said “it would be a mistake to have any significant number of additional combat forces because I would like to see a large increase in the Afghan army be the major way in which this is successful.”
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was more strident, saying he is against a build up of American forces.
“It is time to start thinking about bringing troops out of Afghanistan and reducing our commitment there,” he said. He pledged to oppose a decision to send more.
“There will be resistance to this if necessary,” Feingold said. “If necessary, we will act to prevent this mistake.”
Kyl and Levin spoke on “Fox News Sunday,” Hatch and Webb were on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and Feingold and McCain appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”