House defense spending cardinal John Murtha, an early bellwether of congressional opposition to the Iraq war, has made his strongest comments yet opposing more U.S. troops for the war in Afghanistan.
The Pennsylvania lawmaker and Vietnam veteran, who plays a crucial role in forming the budgets that would fund an increased troop presence, is skeptical of the basic logic of adding personnel.
"In Vietnam it took 500,000 troops and that didn't solve the problem. So we have to take a different approach," Murtha told The Cable in an exclusive interview. "I think that's what McChrystal is trying to do," he said, referring to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, who recently delivered a status report to the White House on the situation there.
Murtha's dissent comes at a critical juncture, with the Washington debate heating up and public support for the war effort dropping. The Pennsylvania congressman is only the latest senior Democratic lawmaker to come out against a troop increase, following similar statements last week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin.
But opposition from Murtha, who has deep contacts among the military brass, could ultimately prove more problematic for an Obama administration that has yet to launch a full-throated to defense of the war. In 2005, the congressman's call for a rapid pullout from Iraq rallied the anti-war camp and led to a series of fights with the Bush administration over restrictions that Democrats sought but ultimately failed to attach to war funds. This time, he's going against a president of his own party.
McChrystal's status report did not include specific requests for more troops. Those are expected in the coming weeks. But Murtha said that it was premature to add more troops to Afghanistan, especially since the current plan to increase U.S. forces there to the level of 68,000 is still underway.
"Look how long it took us to get 22,000 more troops, it took 18 months! Jesus Christ!" said Murtha, "When they talk about more troops they act as if you can send them in immediately."
Murtha also had some choice words for the NATO countries that are part of the international mission in Afghanistan.
"At the same time, the American people are supporting this and the Europeans aren't supporting this," Murtha said, "The Europeans aren't doing a damn thing."
Same Argument, Different Motives
Each senior Democrat has his or her own reason for putting forth warnings to the administration regarding Afghan troop increases. Pelosi, for example, must attend to the liberal wing of her party, which has repeatedly called for no more war funding until an exit strategy is proffered.
Pelosi herself has voted against war funding in the past while simultaneously leading the strategy for passing said funding in her chamber. And House Appropriations chairman David Obey (D-WI), has suggested that he might not support more funding for the Afghan war if progress isn't demonstrated within the next year.
Levin's trepidation about adding troops to Afghanistan is tied to his long-held desire to push for a much larger increase in the size of the Afghan National Security Forces. The administration could grant him concessions on this goal in exchange for his support, but there are serious questions about whether or not more money for the Afghan army could be spent usefully in the near term.
For Murtha, his aversion to increased troops levels relates to his ongoing battle with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates regarding the overall way forward for the armed forces.
Gates and Murtha stand on opposite sides of a growing divide in the defense community over how to deal with a military facing budgets that are leveling off after years of huge increases. For Murtha, every dollar spent on personnel is a dollar taken away from the procurement programs he works to protect.
Murtha has resisted several of the major changes Gates announced this year for large Pentagon procurement programs such as the F-22 fighter, the alternative engine for the F-35, the VH-71 presidential helicopter, and many more.
Last month, Murtha bristled at Gates's announcement that he wanted to add 30,000 new soldiers to the Army for only three years' time and without requesting any additional funds from Congress.
And Murtha has said there will be a new supplemental spending bill to pay for the wars this spring. The administration is trying to fund war operations through the regular budget, but a troop increase probably would not be covered under the currently proposed allotments.
Not all Democrats are growing weary of the Afghanistan mission. House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) put out a statement Sept. 10 that said, in part, "Now is not the time to lose our resolve. We must give our forces the time and resources they need to show progress in the fight against the enemies responsible for the attacks of 9/11."
A Sept. 1 CBS News poll reported that now 41 percent of Americans want to see a decreased U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, up from 33 percent in April and 24 percent in February. Forty-eight percent of respondents said they approve of Obama's handling of the war, down from 56 percent in April.
The administration is due to report to Congress on its metrics for measuring progress in Afghanistan on Sept. 24.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.