As President Obama contemplates perhaps the most fateful decision of his young presidency -- whether to commit tens of thousands of additional American soldiers and most likely hundreds of billions of additional funds to a civil war in central Asia that could well last for the rest of his presidency -- it is vital that the debate not be confined to White House but also involve the Congress and the American people.
Under the Constitution, the president is the commander-in-chief, but it is the Congress that has the power to declare war and appropriate funds. Too often, in the past 60 years, presidents have committed American troops to foreign wars on the shakiest of Congressional authorization. After that, the only alternative to those in Congress who might question the decision is to cut off funds. But doing so when large numbers of American troops are already engaged in combat on foreign soil is a politically dangerous endeavor and only takes place under the most dire of circumstances.
Therefore, the time is now -- before President Obama makes these momentous and near irreversible decisions -- for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Appropriations Committee to call emergency hearings on Afghanistan to fully air the pros and cons of committing large numbers of additional troops and tens or hundreds of billions of additional dollars for an open ended war.
As Daniel Ellsberg (the former Pentagon official turned Vietnam War critic who released the Pentagon Papers) reminded a crowd in Los Angeles last week, the Fall of 2009 is very much like the Summer of 1965 when LBJ and his military and civilian advisors debated whether to increase American troop commitments in South Vietnam from about 23,000 "advisors" (less than the 68,000 now stationed in Afghanistan) to several hundred thousand combat troops.
(Ellsberg might also have mentioned that it's also much like 1962, when another young President, John F. Kenndy, was getting conflicting advice about sending American ground troops to Laos, but eventually refused, to the dismay of many of his generals.)
Although few members of Congress and hardly any members of the general public knew at the time, historians now know that LBJ was indeed getting conflicting advice. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense McNamara urged escalation; although they also acknowledged that "victory" would eventually require not just tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands more American troops committed for at least five years. But there were dissenting voices in the private deliberations. Under Secretary of State George Ball, Chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board Clark Clifford and Vice President Hubert Humphrey secretly warned LBJ that escalation in Vietnam would likely fail, could consume his presidency, and undermine the remainder of his domestic agenda. In a secret Memo to the President dated July 1, 1965, Ball warned,
"A Losing War. The South Vietnamese are losing the War to the Viet Cong. No one can assure you that we can beat the Viet Cong...no matter how many hundred thousand white, foreign (U.S.) troops we deploy. No one has demonstrated that a white ground force can win a guerilla war--which is at the same time a civil war between Asians--in a jungle terrain in the midst of a population that refuses cooperation to the white forces (and the South Vietnamese [army]...The alternative --no matter what we may wish it to be--is almost certainly a protracted war involving an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces, mounting U.S. casualties, no assurance of a satisfactory solution, and a serious danger of escalation at the end of the road."
We now know that LBJ chose to follow the advice of the generals and Defense Department, resulting in over 50,000 American deaths; over a million Vietnamese deaths; a huge increase in the defense budget to the detriment of domestic programs; the end of Johnson's presidency; and the eventual victory of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese anyway.
But these momentous debates were taking place in the privacy of the White House and were unknown to most in Congress and to the American people. It was not until a year later that Sen. William Fulbright held the first televised hearings of the Senate Foreign Committee on the Vietnam War, for the first time airing a serious national debate on the wisdom of the rapidly escalating War in Vietnam. But by that time, it was too late to stop the momentum.
Congress should not make the same mistake again. Washington is a leakier place in 2009 than it was in 1965. So those who follow the news closely know that President Obama is receiving conflicting advice on Afghanistan.
We know that his Afghanistan commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is recommending at least 40,000 more troops (on top of the 68,000 troops already there) as part of a counterinsurgency strategy to defend the population and militarily defeat the Taliban. We know that counterinsurgency experts believe it would eventually take closer to 200,000 American troops and at least a decade more of war to have a credible chance of defeating the Taliban and establishing a stable central government. We know that that each additional soldier committed to Afghanistan costs approximately $1,000,000 a year and key members of Congress like House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey warn that sending more troops could "devour virtually any other priorities that the president or anyone in Congress had." We read leaks, credible or not, that President Obama is leaning towards sending 30,000 more troops, less than McChrystal is asking for but more than the American ambassador wants.
Indeed, just as it appeared that Obama's troops decision had been all but made, we now get another leak that Ambassador Karl Eikenberry -- the three-star general who preceded McChrystal as the commander in Afghansistan -- has cabled several memos to President Obama opposing a troop increase and warning that a counterinsurgency strategy may be impossible to carry out when our partner is the corrupt government of Hamid Karzai.
Mathew Hoh, a recently retired Marine Corps captain and Iraq War Vet turned Senior Civilian Representative for the US Government in Zabul province recently resigned in protest of the Afghanistan War. His resignation letter sounds eerily like George Ball's 1965 Memo to LBJ:
"To put it simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war...I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul. ...We are mortgaging our Nation's economy on a war which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come. Success and victory, whatever they may be, will be realized not in years, after billions more spent, but in decades and generations. The United States does not enjoy a national treasury for such success and victory...The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence that such assurance can anymore be made."
If Congress is going to be called upon to finance this war with billions more in taxpayer dollars, this debate should be taking place in the halls of Congress in front of the American people and not just in secret in the halls of the White House. If, as even the War's strongest advocates admit would be necessary to have a chance of winning, America is going to be asked to commit tens or hundreds of thousands of more troops and hundreds of billions of dollars for a decade or more, then this decision should be made in consultation with Congress and with the support of the American people. President Obama's temperament seems to lead him to seek compromise. But compromise may well be the worst possible decision; a decision splitting the difference and sending too few troops for too little time to win would end up dividing the country and might well destroy Obama's Presidency.
Surely Sen. John Kerry -- who now chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- is aware of the powerful impact that Congressional hearings about a controversial war can have on American politics. It was during 11 days of televised Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings in 1971 that Lieut. John F. Kerry, a decorated young officer recently returned from Vietnam, first came to the attention of the American public with his stirring testimony ending with his memorable question, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
So let's call Gen. McChrystal to testify in front of Congress, as John McCain and many Republicans have urged. Let's call Ambassador Eikenberry. Let's call experienced civilian and military field officers like Mathew Hoh. Classified information can be discussed in closed door hearings. But the basic questions of American strategy in Afghanistan should be debated by Congress in front of the American people, before President Obama makes a fateful decision on whether or not to escalate the war.
If America is to be asked to commit more blood and treasure to a lengthy war in Central Asia, it can expect no less, first.