In an interview with Tom Hayden last week, Senator Russ Feingold said he is leaning against a further American troop increase and the war-funding measure that is now before Congress. The statements were included in an op-ed piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Tuesday morning.
Feingold, whose call for a troop withdrawal has sparked an increase in Congressional questioning of Afghanistan, left the door open for possible changes in the administration’s current position. He would need to “hear some very different arguments” about Afghanistan before altering his opposition, Feingold said.
Feingold’s earlier call on August 23 for a “flexible timetable” for troop withdrawals set off a flurry of dovish speeches by Democratic senators and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Republicans and Gen. Stanley McChrystal argued that a troop increase is essential to success in defeating terrorism.
President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have given conflicting signals in recent days. On Sunday, Obama said he was not interested in “saving face” or “sending a message that America is here for the duration.”
The administration’s published metrics for progress make priorities of (1) disrupting and defeating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and (2) improving Pakistan’s stability and counterinsurgency capabilities, ahead of (3) creating a “more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan.”
But with the Kabul regime in free fall, and since the stated purpose of Obama’s recent troop escalation was to secure Afghanistan for its presidential election, it appears that the Humpty Dumpty in Kabul will be impossible to fix without more naked intervention. “There is no question that the nature of the election in Afghanistan has complicated the picture for us,” says the soft-spoken Gates.
For the moment, Feingold has found an opening, and other Democrats have followed. The timeline he proposes is ambiguous. His advocacy of continuing Predator attacks will not satisfy the anti-war movement. His claim that America can defeat Al Qaeda by promising to withdraw will be ridiculed by the military and their allies in Congress. But a silent Congress is beginning to question things, in significant part because 70 percent of Democratic voters, and a majority of Americans overall, are saying they oppose the war. The interview follows:
Tom Hayden: If the president proposes another troop increase, will you oppose it?
Russ Feingold: Unless I hear some very different arguments than what I’ve already heard, I will not support a troop increase.
TH: Are you planning to introduce legislation on Afghanistan? If so, when?
: Right now, I am focused on making sure a timetable is part of the conversation. Just a few weeks ago, there weren’t many in Congress talking about it. Now, there is a chorus of voices in Congress questioning whether adding more troops is really the way to go. I hope the administration will be responsive. However, I am definitely keeping my options open.
TH: Can you clarify what you mean by a “flexible” timetable for troop withdrawal?
: I think offering a public timetable would help our national security efforts by denying Al Qaeda and the Taliban a recruitment tool: the indefinite presence of American troops in their country, which many Afghans perceive as an occupation. There may be a need for some flexibility in the timetable based on conditions on the ground. But the point would be to give Americans, Afghans and people of the world some sense of when our military would be out of there.
TH: Are you going to vote for, or against, the current military supplemental before Congress?
: I opposed the defense authorization bill earlier this year in part because I did not agree with the Afghanistan strategy. It would be difficult for me to support legislation that follows down this misguided path.
TH: Before voting, will you offer any amendments?
: I am very concerned that the current strategy for Afghanistan could further destabilize Pakistan, and I will look for ways to address that, possibly legislatively.
TH: If not attached to a funding bill, how will the flexible timetable concept have traction?
: The timetable concept already has traction. We are engaged in a public debate, and more and more members of Congress are weighing in with concerns. Now, we are awaiting the response of the President.
TH: How do you feel about Representative McGovern’s exit strategy resolution (HR 2404), which was the only instrument that reached a floor vote this year, getting a majority of Democrats despite White House lobbying? Is there a way the two concepts can be blended?
: Representative McGovern’s call for an exit strategy is consistent with my call for a discussion on the need for a timetable.
TH: Do you think the Senate should attach performance criteria such as: independent monitoring of casualty figures [US and Afghan], human rights standards for detention centers, definitions of progress towards withdrawal, etc?
: I’m not opposed to these or other benchmarks as a means of assessing the situation on the ground, but a timetable is also needed. The American and Afghan people want to know that our presence there isn’t open-ended, not just that we are making progress in certain respects that may or may not be key to our strategic interests.
TH: Do you favor continued use of Predators and drones towards Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan or Pakistan?
: We will always reserve the right to act in the national security interests of the American people, including targeting Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership.
TH: Do you equate Al Qaeda with the Taliban? Most say they are quite different in terms of US national security interests.
: “Taliban” has been used to describe a broad range of militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of whom have different agendas. However, we can’t ignore the clear ties between senior Taliban leadership and Al Qaeda.
TH: Understanding your willingness to deploy Predators against Al Qaeda targets, how do you counter the widespread view that the civilian casualties only harden Pakistan and Afghan public opinion against the US? Even counter-insurgency warriors like David Kilcullen oppose the Predator strikes as counter-productive.
: I am deeply troubled by the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and we should do everything in our power to curb civilian casualties. The best way to do so is to greatly reduce the size of our military footprint in that country.
TH: Do you believe the Karzai government’s legitimacy, which was already weak, can be salvaged after the evidence of widespread fraud? Is it time for the US to seek an alternative, perhaps all-party talks under the UN until there is another loya jirga among Afghans?
: I am concerned. I understand there is a process in place, which I am closely monitoring, that is being administered by the Afghan government and international community. And drawing down our forces does not mean abandoning Afghanistan. We must remain engaged and help the country build its democratic institutions, which will also help fight extremism.