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Afghanistan Ball in Congress’ Court: Watch Levin, Reed, Obey, Murtha

Congress is back, and Karen DeYoung has a good section in her Washington Post story on the administration’s Afghanistan choices about what that means:

The pending 2010 budget legislation for the first time requests more money for Afghanistan-Pakistan operations than for Operation Iraqi Freedom — $68 billion compared with $61 billion. Administration officials said they expected congressional debate on the larger Defense Department appropriation of more than half a trillion dollars to focus on Afghanistan spending.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee who spent the weekend in Afghanistan with Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), told the Providence Journal last week that he anticipated “a very vigorous debate” over the way forward. Reed, the Rhode Island paper reported, said he thinks that U.S. strategy is on the right track but that there is an urgent need for more Afghan forces.

That’s on top of the upcoming delivery to Congress of the administration’s metrics for measuring Afghanistan success. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) has already called for a “flexible timetable” for withdrawal. But Feingold, for better or worse, still isn’t someone his Democratic colleagues look to for national security questions. Levin, however, is. So watch what Levin says now that he’s back from Afghanistan, which I believe is his first trip there since Gen. Stanley McChrystal took command, especially since it comes right on the heels of the Kunduz bombing disaster. Levin has been a consistent supporter of the administration on Afghanistan, a war whose value he frequently contrasted with his criticisms of the Iraq war, and delivered McChrystal a quiet, controversy-free confirmation hearing. Levin’s continued support — or lack thereof — will be a bellwether to his Democratic colleagues, who look to him for national security stewardship. Same goes, to a slightly lesser degree, for Reed.

In the House, the business is in the House Appropriations Committee. Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) has no share of ethical problems. He also has the chairmanship of the defense appropriations subcommittee. Last December, he publicly emphasized the need for an “achievable” Afghanistan strategy, a measurement at the heart of the Afghanistan debate. Murtha, a consistent hawk, denounced the Iraq war in 2005, giving Democratic colleagues and the bigfoot journalists who respect Murtha greater cover to move leftward on Iraq. His relentless ethics problems — he looks like he’s sold his office, basically — probably prevent anyone from saluting any flag Murtha raises on Afghanistan, but he still has management over the billions of dollars the administration wants for the war.

If Murtha wasn’t enough, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the appropriations committee chairman, has told the administration it has what’s now less than a year to demonstrate progress in Afghanistan or come springtime, he’s going to start cutting war funding. That was before McChrystal was in place but after Obama announced his new strategy. And more than anything else, that has influence over the metrics, since it creates an incentive for the administration to juke the stats and create tests that it can pass in order to avoid Obey’s threatened cuts. On Sept. 24, the metrics are due to Congress, so we’ll get a clue then whether that’s how the administration is treating this first fall test.

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