WASHINGTON — Though he acknowledged the top general in Afghanistan had to go after making controversial remarks, Rep. Adam Smith said that Gen. Stanley McChrystal received only tepid support from the White House for his strategy and civilian and military leaders apparently aren't on the same wavelength.
"This is not in any way all McChrystal's fault," Smith, D-Wash., said in an interview. "I'm not in love with the way the civilian folks (in the White House) worked with the military."
Smith, along with Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., is in the thick of the growing debate on Capitol Hill over U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Both assert it's a war that must be fought, it's winnable depending on the definition of winnable, and President Obama's goal of starting to withdraw troops a year from now is realistic.
Dicks, as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, holds the purse strings for the Pentagon's more than $600 billion budget and is among a handful of senior House members well-versed in national security issues. If Democrats hold control of the House, Dicks is in line to become chairman of the full Appropriations Committee — a post that would allow him to wield enormous power.
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"I have incredible confidence in this surge," Dicks said as the U.S. sends an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan this year.
Dicks met one on one with Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander in Afghanistan, last week and also attended a briefing by Petraeus involving a small group of House members.
"Obama made a 10-strike with Petraeus," Dicks said. "We have to give Petraeus his shot. He has about a year to show progress."
During his confirmation hearing last week, Petraeus reaffirmed his support for the president's withdrawal timeline but warned there was tough fighting ahead.
Smith is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, and as a senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee he chaired the subcommittee that had jurisdiction over the nation's Special Operations forces. Though he now chairs the air and land forces subcommittee, he remains tight with the SpecOps community, which McChrystal used to head.
"I'm a huge fan," Smith said of McChrystal. "He is very talented and it is a loss to the country."
McChrystal resigned after he and members of his staff made disparaging comments about President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Richard Holbrooke, a special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Rolling Stone magazine.
"What he said publicly made it difficult for him to stay in his position," Smith said.
But Smith said there were larger issues involved, including "a fundamental breakdown between the military and civilian side in Afghanistan."
"I have one concern: Are Obama, Biden, Holbrooke and Eikenberry committed to the counterinsurgency strategy McChrystal tried to implement?" Smith said. "That question has been too unclear for too long."
The U.S. continues to have a critical national security interest in ensuring the Taliban, who have an alliance with al-Qaida, don't come back to power, Smith said.
"It's simple," Smith said.
"The basic reason we are there is this is where al-Qaida planned 9/11," he said, adding that if the U.S. withdrew, "they would move right back in and plan new attacks on the U.S."
Smith said he saw no reason why the U.S. couldn't begin to draw down troops next year, though he cautioned that the war will not end with a signing ceremony on the deck of a battleship like World War II did. The U.S. "achieves its mission" if the Taliban don't come back to power, he said.
As for sending more U.S. forces if the situation worsens, Smith said, "I don't see a scenario where we add troops. Having a large-scale presence in a Muslim country is not good."
Dicks echoed Smith.
"I don't think the president intends on doing that," he said. "We have to wait and see what the play is on the ground."
Dicks said he remains extremely concerned about the corruption in the Afghan government and the heroin trafficking. He also said NATO needs to supply more troops, Petraeus needs to review the rules of engagement for U.S. forces and the military needs to "pound away" in the border areas.
"The American people want to know we are stabilizing the country, making progress, and then we can get out," Dicks said.