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Arkansas delegation is of 2 minds on war strategy

By Jane Fullerton

This article was published December 2, 2009 at 5:36 a.m.

— Arkansas’ congressional delegation responded Tuesday to President Barack Obama’s new strategy in Afghanistan with an ambivalence that reflected the war’s complexity, voicing support for U.S. troops mixed with concern about the cost for Americans and the accountability of Afghans.

“We’re going to a do a fullcourt press for 18 months and respond to conditions on the ground,” Rep. Vic Snyder said after the president’s nationally televised speech. “But the American people have every right to expect improvements in the Afghan military, the Afghan police and the Afghan government.”

Snyder sits on the House Armed Services Committee, which will hear Thursday from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen about the temporary troop surge.

“You will see some of the details get fleshed out,” said Snyder, who chairs the subcommittee on oversight and investigations that has held several hearings in recent weeks on issues related to Afghanistan.

Snyder praised Obama for a “thoughtful analysis” of America’s national security and how it fits into the political, historic and economic context of the Afghan region. “I believe the people of Arkansas and America appreciate the complexity and nuance of these issues,” he said.

Meanwhile, Reps. John Boozman and Mike Ross will hear details of the new strategy today when a trio of key administration officials - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton along with Gates and Mullen - testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee of which they are members.

Boozman, the delegation’s only Republican, issued a statement saying he would support the troops and “the task they are given by commanders on the ground.”

But he reiterated the criticism of many Republicans who disagree with establishing a timetable for beginning to withdraw forces.

“I am hopeful President Obama’s approach will secure a victory in Afghanistan,” like the similar troop surge in Iraq, Boozman said. But, he added, “I am concerned about arbitrary and public timelines. Arbitrary public timelines do more harm than good and there is no sense revealing specific details about our strategy unnecessarily.”

Ross, on the other hand, issued a statement backing the plan to send more troops and set a time frame.

“I also support the president’s commitment to develop a responsible exit strategy that includes training Afghans to take responsibility for their own country’s security, much like we are doing in Iraq,” Ross said.

Given al-Qaida’s ties to Afghanistan, Ross said, “We simply must finish the job we started there” to prevent future terrorist attacks.

“I have visited with our troops on the ground in Afghanistan and have seen firsthand the difficult situation they are facing,” he said.

Rep. Marion Berry, meanwhile, was the only member to express strong skepticism about whether the strategy can succeed and whether the timetable for withdrawal can be maintained. But his chief concern is the cost.

As a member of both the House Appropriations and Budget committees, Berry is likely to have a say in determining how the new policy is funded.

“I don’t remember him saying anything about how we’re going to pay for this,” Berry said after the president’s address at West Point. “I just think it’s got to be paid for.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Blanche Lincoln echoed Berry’s worries about paying for the troop increase. As a member of the Finance Committee, she, too, will have a say in that issue.

The state’s senior senator noted in a written statement that thousands of Arkansans have served in Afghanistan and 15 have been killed. Two Arkansas National Guard units are scheduled to deploy there in the spring.

“As this war continues into its eighth year, Arkansans are growing more skeptical of additional and seemingly unlimited investments of American lives and treasure into Afghanistan,” Lincoln said. “At a time when so many working families are struggling to make ends meet, this kind of open-ended commitment is simply not acceptable and it is not feasible.”

Sen. Mark Pryor serves on a pair of panels with jurisdiction over Afghan issues - the Appropriations Committee and the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

“I am pleased the president’s plan reflects the advice of our commanders in the field by increasing troop strength and adjusting strategy to meet the military and political needs in Afghanistan,” he said in a written statement. “American troops and their families continue to pay a high price to stabilize Afghanistan and improve our security at home.”

Front Section, Pages 7 on 12/02/2009

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