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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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December 21, 2007 3:51 PM

A Democrat's new plan for Iraq troop withdrawal: Move them to Afghanistan

Posted by David Postman

Congressman Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, introduced a resolution this week calling for withdrawal of an unspecified number of troops from Iraq in order to build U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Smith told me:

"There's absolutely no equivocation, at every level of the military or from any observer looking at it, that we need more troops in Afghanistan. When I was there, there was no doubt they need more troops and there's no doubt that one reason they can't get them is they have all the eggs in the Iraq basket. You will not see an increase in troops in Afghanistan if you don't get a decrease in Iraq. You simply don't have the resources."

Smith got a chance to ask military leaders about Afghanistan last week during a hearing before the Armed Services Committee. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee that the U.S. military's focus was "rightly and firmly in Iraq.''

"It is simply a matter of resources, of capacity. In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must."

Smith said that for every dollar the U.S. spends in Iraq, it spends less than 28 cents in Afghanistan. There are clearly problems in Afghanistan. (And more on that in a moment.) But I'm sure no one will be surprised that part of the motivation for the resolution -- co-sponsored by Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Missouri -- is rhetorical. Says Smith:

"More than anything I want to try to shift the debate. The president has seized the debate for the moment by saying the surge has worked in Iraq so we can't leave."

Smith said debate about whether the surge is working is largely academic.

"If you gave me $165 billion, 160,000 U.S. troops and all kinds of military assets, I'll make a difference in just about any country you can point out on a map. The question is, is that the right place for us to be? Keep in mind, if al Qaeda is the enemy here, if we're really trying to defeat an enemy that is a grave threat to us, they are in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is right next door. That is where we have to hit them."

The disparity between the number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries roughly the same size, makes no sense, Smith said.

"I am not of the opinion that Iraq is six times more important to our national interest than Afghanistan."

("The gods of irony are apparently watching Congress these days," writes Reid Wilson at RealClearPolitics. "The measure has been designated House Resolution 911.")

So what is the situation in Afghanistan? Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared before the Armed Services Committee and summed it up by saying there was "reason for optimism tempered by caution."

"Our progress in Afghanistan is real but fragile."

On the progress side, Gates told the committee that more Afghans have access to health care with construction of hundreds of clinics and hospitals. Under the Taliban, fewer than one million children were in school. Now there are more than five million. There is a central bank and unified currency. More than four million Afghan refugees have returned to their country.

And here's the bad news, which sounds a bit worse than fragile:

"The police force continues to struggle due to corruption and illiteracy. Also hindering the government from extending its authority and influence across the country are the insurgent and Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan, and weapons and financing coming from Iran. Cross-border insurgency contributes to the continuing violence.

"As you know, in 2007 the number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan increased. The insurgents have resorted more and more to suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices similar
to those found in Iraq. ...

"The drug trade in Afghanistan threatens the foundations of this young government. Poppy cultivation has been rising overall, despite an internationally backed counter-narcotics effort."

Smith said he had not yet taken the resolution to House leadership. When Congress returns from recess he will look for more co-sponsors for the resolution.

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