US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and commander of US forces Stanley McChrystal are testifying to multiple Congressional committees today, and fellow FDLer Spencer Ackerman has all the details of that at the Windy. I want to highlight this comment from Rep. Rob Andrews as an example of the difficulty President Obama and the Administration will have in reconciling a skeptical Democratic Congress – and populace – to this decision.

Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), offering what he calls “unsolicited advice,” said that the American people won’t support sending additional troops to Afghanistan “on a bankshot” when al-Qaeda is mostly in Pakistan. How large is al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan?

“In terms of numbers, there is not a robust al-Qaeda presence,” said Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But he broadens the question as one about al-Qaeda’s strategic depth. “In terms of ability, linkages to people like the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura Taliban” and their surrogates, “in fact they do have significant linkages and influence.”

Andrews asked about what the United States is doing about al-Qaeda in Pakistan. McChrystal reminds that he doesn’t have the portfolio to deal directly with Pakistan. But he makes a subtle point about why he rejects a counterterrorism-only strategy. “Based upon my background, I would tell you the most effective long-term tactic against terrorism is governance.”

Ultimately, this is one of the major problems. Fighting a war in Afghanistan to goose the Pakistanis to go after extremists in their own country cannot be described as much other than a “bank shot.” The Administration may be ratcheting up the rhetoric to Pakistan to urge them to confront extremists, particularly those moving across the border to attack US forces, but it’s unclear why 30,000 new troops have to be sent to Afghanistan to accomplish that, and furthermore, removing US troops would actually eliminate the threat of extremists killing Americans by moving across the border.

There’s just a lot of sideways talk in this debate. We have to “clear the Taliban” from population centers, but the initial offensives show that the Taliban is clearing themselves. We have to reinforce the Afghan government, but the only government working in Afghanistan to deliver resources to the people is the elaborate shadow government managed by the Taliban. We want to encourage confrontation in Pakistan but we’re doing that through confrontation in Afghanistan, with a goal of dismantling a threat that isn’t there.

And the biggest sideways talk is over that “withdrawal date” of July 2011, which is alternately described as a hard start to an ultimate removal of forces or a “ramp” that would not preclude a military presence in the country for several years. The President’s staff tried to write the first draft of history over the weekend, with several stories showing how Obama was mainly concerned with moving troops in and out as quickly as possible, and how he didn’t want to “be going to Walter Reed for another eight years” as a war President. This is designed to reassure a war-weary public, but the advisors continually undercut this tendency with repeated comments that nothing has been decided and troops will only leave based on “conditions on the ground,” the ultimate weasel phrase.

It has caused a lot of strain. While approval of the President’s war strategy has seen a short-term boost, Democrats have openly questioned it. John Conyers had a run-in with the President for his critical comments, and among other issues, he was skeptical of the deliberations over the strategy:

Obama’s move to send in 30,000 troops to Afghanistan by the summer of 2010 has clearly disappointed Conyers.

He said he intends to press his case in writing soon.

“I want something so serious that he has to respond in writing, like I am responding in writing to him,” he said.

“Calling in generals and admirals to discuss troop strength is like me taking my youngest to McDonald’s to ask if he likes french fries,” Conyers said.

Conyers was a major supporter of the President’s campaign in Michigan at a time when the state party establishment was backing Hillary Clinton, so this is not nothing.

Sen. Jim Webb offered a longer critique of the policy, in particular the wisdom of propping up a corrupt Afghan government and “whether building a national army of considerable scale is achievable.” Webb is also concerned about the strain on active-duty troops who have had multiple deployments.

As for whether these critiques will translate into action, it’s unclear. Russ Feingold said over the weekend that it would be difficult to stop the action, especially because many of the dollars for the early part of the escalation have already been appropriated. Feingold said that he’s “working with members of both parties” to find a point where funding could be blocked:

FEINGOLD: We’re already working with members of both parties in both houses to question whether this funding should be approved. We’re going to fight any attempts to use sort of accounting gimmicks to allow it to be funded. If there’s an attempt to have an emergency supplemental, I think that’s something we’re going to oppose, not only on the grounds of it being an unwise policy, but also being fiscally irresponsible.

But in the end, George, what’s going to happen is, if we continue this policy and build up these troops, there’s going to be more and more members of Congress who aren’t comfortable with it, and it’s not just going to be Democrats.

Ultimately, the President should worry about, on this issue as well as ones like jobs and health care, whether the base will bother to turn out in 2010 given these actions.

David Dayen

David Dayen