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Missouri Democrat to White House: Keep focus on Afghanistan

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 | 2:31 p.m. CDT; updated 9:12 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 22, 2009

WASHINGTON — The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee is urging the White House to send more troops to Afghanistan and stick with a military strategy that was outlined six months ago.

A letter sent Tuesday to the White House from Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri says the Obama administration cannot be distracted from its mission of defeating the Taliban to protect the U.S. from al-Qaida.

"This leads me to urge you to waste no time in providing a clear direction to our commanders and civilian leaders, along with the resources necessary to achieve their mission," Skelton wrote to President Barack Obama in a letter obtained by The Associated Press.

Warning of the lessons of history, Skelton added: "The last administration allowed itself to be distracted from the fight forced on us in Afghanistan by the fight it chose in Iraq. I believe that this was a strategic mistake, robbing the war in Afghanistan of the necessary resources and resulting in an approach of 'half-ass it and hope.' We cannot afford to continue that policy."

Skelton is the highest-ranking Democrat in Congress to support sending more troops to Afghanistan. His letter comes as the White House mulls shifting its strategy to order more airstrikes on terrorists in Pakistan instead of mounting a major military escalation in Afghanistan.

Two senior administration officials said Monday that the renewed fight against al-Qaida could lead to more missile attacks on Pakistan terrorist havens by unmanned U.S. spy planes. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made.

The armed drones could contain al-Qaida in a smaller, if more remote, area and keep its leaders from retreating back into Afghanistan, the officials said.

The prospect of a White House alternative to a deepening involvement in Afghanistan comes as administration officials debate whether to send more troops — as urged in a blunt assessment of the deteriorating conflict by the top U.S. commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

The president thus far has not endorsed the McChrystal approach, saying in television interviews over the weekend that he needs to be convinced that sending more troops would make Americans safer from al-Qaida.

Tellingly, Obama reiterated in those interviews that his core goal is to destroy al-Qaida, which is not present in significant numbers in Afghanistan. He did not focus on saving Afghanistan.

"I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face," Obama told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

Top aides to Obama said he still has questions and wants more time to decide.

Forces on the ground in Afghanistan have been forging ahead for weeks with the counterinsurgency strategy laid out by the president in March, including working to pull back troops from remote and sparsely populated Taliban havens and to move them to populated areas where they can fulfill the counterinsurgency tact of protecting the people. They have not pulled back from many places yet.

And McChrystal had completed a separate report in which he could request in the range of some 40,000 additional troops to carry out that strategy, Pentagon officials said. But it has been decided that he will not submit it until a strategy is finalized, defense officials said.

Officials said the administration aims to push ahead with the ground mission in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, still leaving the door open for sending more U.S. troops. But Obama's top advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden, have indicated they are reluctant to send many more troops — if any at all — in the immediate future.

The proposed shift would bolster U.S. action on Obama's long-stated goal of dismantling terrorist havens, but it could also complicate American relations with Pakistan, long wary of the growing use of aerial drones to target militants along the porous border with Afghanistan.

 


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