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Lawmakers raise concerns over an expanded Afghan war

Days before President Obama is expected to announce his decision to send 30,000 or more additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, key lawmakers from both parties expressed deep misgivings about the cost and course of an expanded war.

The persistent skepticism from the president’s own party, along with new doubts raised by Republicans who have generally supported broadening the conflict, underscores the stakes for Obama as he prepares to unveil his troop increase proposal during a speech Tuesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The critical comments from lawmakers came amid the release of a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that suggested the debate over sending more soldiers to Afghanistan might have been avoided if the United States hadn’t missed a crucial opportunity to capture or kill Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, appeared to embrace a proposal gaining momentum among some Democrats for a war “surtax” to help defray the costs of expanding the Afghanistan campaign.

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“I think we will have to pay for it,” Lugar said in an interview on CNN. “We may wish to discuss higher taxes to pay for it.”

Lugar also said he believes that Americans, already faltering in their support of the war, would not be willing to sustain the military campaign beyond five more years.

Similar questions about the war plan were raised Sunday by other lawmakers, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a military veteran who serves on the armed services and appropriations panels.

“What we have to have is a continually decreasing military presence in Afghanistan,” Reed said, also on CNN. “Unless we’re on a trajectory in which our troop levels come down, the ability of the American public to support it and financially to support it is questionable.”

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Lawmakers’ statements add to the pressure on Obama to detail the nation’s exit strategy in his West Point speech, which will be watched closely in the capitals of Afghanistan and Pakistan for signs of wavering U.S. resolve.

The cost of the war has become a central concern on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers already nervous about voter frustration with the nation’s economy are locked in an intense debate over an $850-billion healthcare overhaul bill.

The war in Afghanistan has cost $243 billion since 2001, and the government estimates that the cost would rise $1 million per year for every additional U.S. soldier. At that rate, the increase Obama is expected to endorse could wipe out savings from troops withdrawn from Iraq.

Given the economic climate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said it would be “immoral” to escalate the war in Afghanistan without introducing new taxes or taking other measures to pay for it.

“No one is talking about bringing the troops home tomorrow,” Sanders said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.” “But if you’re going to have a presence there, you just can’t pass the bill on, as we did in Iraq, to our kids and our grandchildren. I think that’s wrong.”

A decision to send an extra 30,000 U.S. troops would fall short of the 40,000 requested by Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The Obama administration may seek to bridge that gap by leaning on European and other allies to expand their troop commitments. But prospects for success in doing so are uncertain at best.

Because of skepticism among Democrats, Obama probably will depend on support from Republicans for any expansion of the war. Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said prevailing in Afghanistan should be the nation’s top priority, and he proposed trimming the healthcare bill to pay for it.

Afghanistan “is not just any place on the planet,” Graham said on ABC. “This is the place where the Taliban took control after the Russians left, aligned themselves with Al Qaeda, and attacked this nation and killed 3,000 Americans.”

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The U.S. invaded Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, ousting the Taliban and prompting Al Qaeda fighters to flee into the mountainous region along the border with Pakistan.

The report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee offers the most definitive account to date of Bin Laden’s escape into Pakistan, and concludes that the United States allowed him to slip from its grasp in mid-December 2001.

Signal intercepts and other evidence confirm that Bin Laden was holed up with other Al Qaeda fighters in the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, according to the report, based on a review of military histories as well as interviews with CIA and U.S. Special Operations officers involved in the battle.

Requests to send U.S. troops to seal off the border were rejected by Gen. Tommy Franks, who was then the leader of U.S. Central Command, and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Instead, fewer than 100 U.S. Special Operations troops were involved in the pursuit, working with Afghan troops poorly equipped for the job.

Franks has since questioned whether Bin Laden was truly at Tora Bora, but the Senate report says Bin Laden was among dozens of Al Qaeda fighters hiding in cave compounds there for several days.

At one point, CIA operatives picked up a radio from a dead Al Qaeda fighter. “Bin Laden’s voice was often picked up, along with frequent comments about the presence of the man referred to by his followers as ‘the sheikh,’ ” the report said.

Bin Laden eluded an intense bombing campaign and relied on a cease-fire ruse to slip across the border into Pakistan, where he is believed to be hiding still, said the report.

“The failure to finish the job represents a lost opportunity that forever altered the course of the conflict in Afghanistan and the future of international terrorism,” the report said. Bin Laden’s escape was a major factor in “laying the foundation for today’s protracted Afghan insurgency and inflaming the internal strife now endangering Pakistan.”

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greg.miller@latimes.com


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