On a blogger conference call this afternoon, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) announced he can’t support a potential addition of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. “We ought not to add troops in Afghanistan,” Specter said, adding that he questioned “even staying” in Afghanistan unless the administration demonstrates that continuing the war is “indispensable to our fight against al-Qaeda.” His position, he said, came as a result of extensive consultations with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of the intelligence community, as well as antipathy to the government of Hamid Karzai.
I asked Specter if he wanted to see the Obama administration embrace an exit strategy for the eight-year war. “I think there ought to be an exit strategy,” Specter said, which ought to be “geared toward our expectations as to what we’re looking to accomplish.” But he demurred on seeking a timeline for winding down the war. “I would want to see the administration’s proposals, and see what people on the ground over there think,” Specter said. “It’s hard to answer that with any specificity.” He added that he endorsed the Obama administration’s style of decisionmaking, defending the “very thoughtful” president against charges of “dithering” lodged by former Vice President Cheney.
Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy’s The Cable asked how a troop increase would go over in Congress. “If they talk about 40,000 troops, which the generals want, I think it’ll be pretty cold,” Specter said. He added that there would be a greater appetite in the Senate for a proposal issued by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to instead emphasize the training of Afghan soldiers and police.
Specter claimed that his opponent in the Pennsylvania Democratic senatorial primary, Rep. Joe Sestak, was calling for a “ measured increase” in troops — Sestak himself, has said he endorsed a “measured increase” in a recent Fox News interview — but when I asked if politics was playing any role in his position, he replied, “None. None.” When I asked why it seemed he was only speaking out lately despite years of deterioration in Afghanistan, Specter replied that he had expressed concern about the Afghanistan war “several months ago,” which I think is a reference to this September Senate floor statement that indeed raised questions about “the prospects for military success in Afghanistan against al-Qaida and the Taliban.” He continued to say that “as Afghanistan has become a hot topic over the course of the last several months” and has become “relevant for congressional response, I have made it.”
Update: After being contacted by Sen. Specter’s staff, I went back to my recording and indeed hear Specter describe Sestak’s position as a “measured” and not “major” increase, despite initially hearing it as “major.” My apologies to the senator.