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Can Congress Save Obama from Afghan Quagmire?

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A progressive presidency is a terrible thing to waste. It only comes around once every so often. Wouldn't it be a shame if Americans' hopes for the Obama administration were squandered in Afghanistan?

Members of Congress who want the Obama administration to succeed won't do it any favors by keeping silent about the proposed military escalation in Afghanistan. The actions of the Obama Administration so far clearly indicate that they can move in response to pressure: both good pressure and bad pressure. If there is only bad pressure, it's more than likely that policy will move in a bad direction. In announcing an increase in U.S. troops before his Afghanistan review was complete, Obama partially acceded to pressure from the military. If we don't want the military to have carte blanche, there needs to be counterpressure.

Some Members of Congress are starting to speak up. Rep. Murtha recently said he's uncomfortable with Obama's decision to increase the number of troops in the country by 17,000 before a goal was clearly defined, AP reports. Sen. Nelson is calling for clear benchmarks to measure progress in Afghanistan, and said he may try to add benchmarks to the upcoming war supplemental bill this spring, CQ Today reports.

But these individual expressions of discomfort will likely not be enough to stop the slide towards greater and greater military escalation.

Eight Members of Congress (Walter Jones, Neil Abercrombie, Roscoe Bartlett, Steve Kagen, Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul, Ed Whitfield, and Lynn Woolsey) have initiated a letter to President Obama urging him to reconsider his support for military escalation. The letter argues that military escalation may well be counterproductive towards the goal of creating a stable government that can control Afghanistan, noting that a recent Carnegie Endowment study concluded that "the only meaningful way to halt the insurgency's momentum is to start withdrawing troops. The presence of foreign troops is the most important element driving the resurgence of the Taliban." [You can find the letter - and ask your Representative to sign it - here.]

There is political space for challenging the logic of escalation.

Forty-two percent of Americans think troops in Afghanistan should be increased, up from 34 percent in January, CBS News reports, no doubt reflecting the largely uncritical press treatment that the proposal for military escalation has received. But the same CBS News/New York Times poll still found that more people thought that U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan should be decreased (24%) or kept the same (23%) - i.e. 47% thought troop levels should be decreased or stay the same, rather than increased.

If we want the US government to seriously pursue diplomacy, there must be serious counterpressure against sending more troops without end. If you want recycling, you have to discourage the establishment of new landfills. If you want economic development and human rights to be at the center of trade policy, you have to jam up corporate trade deals. If you want diplomacy, there has to be a significant political pushback to military escalation.