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Rep. Joe Sestak on the Afghanistan War, Pakistan and the Troop Increase

Tonight’s Afghanistan strategy rollout comes at a tense moment for congressional Democrats. President Obama will announce an escalation of U.S. forces, an adjustment of his March strategy, and an ultimate time-horizon for an exit strategy. But the war, now in its ninth year, has become unpopular — and especially so among the president’s progressive base — as it goes on longer while conditions deteriorate. Democratic members of Congress are looking at a variety of measures to rein the war in, including paying for it through a new tax increase rather than financing it through debt.

An exception to this trend is Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), the former Navy admiral who has served in Afghanistan and who’s looking to oust Arlen Specter, a newly-minted Democrat, from a Pennsylvania Senate seat. Sestak is firmly in favor of both a troop increase and an ultimate exit strategy. What the congressman is listening for tonight, when Obama makes his speech at West Point, is a strategy that tamps down some of the more ambitious goals in Afghanistan and emphasizes the central threat emanating from Pakistan. “That goal must be the eradication of the safe haven that al-Qaeda has in Pakistan,” Sestak said in an interview today with TWI. “I want to hear, however, how much emphasis he has on the training of the Afghan military and police, and nation-building, because I don’t believe we can put an over-emphasis on that, because the cost may be too much.”

That’s not to say Sestak thinks such Afghan institution-building is unimportant. It’s “an effort that should be tried, but it shouldn’t be the central focus,” he said, as it isn’t “imperative [for] the success of our strategy.” He’s concerned by recent administration statements that seem to indicate the resource distribution from Obama’s strategy might favor Afghanistan instead of Pakistan, and is waiting to hear Obama address that balance.

Sestak said he thinks ultimately concluding the war on terms favorable to U.S. interests requires “a three to five-year effort,” though not necessarily at the elevated troop levels Obama will announce tonight. Yet when asked what a successful conclusion to the war ultimately looks like, Sestak described it as piecemeal elements measured by benchmarks he hopes the president will announce. “That should be measurements particularly [about] the top leadership of al-Qaeda,” he said. “We know who they are, we don’t know where exactly they are, but have we got the masterminds?” Additional elements of success, as Sestak describes it, include Pakistani action against their Taliban elements and “their efforts with our support in economic aid and other types of efforts” proceed to prevent backsliding; “neutralizing” the most-rejectionist and al-Qaeda-aligned Afghan Taliban; and “measurements of how many villages, provinces, towns have we been able to have buy-in from the local, not just the national, centers of gravity.”

Politically, Sestak concedes that maintaining Congressional buy-in will be “a challenge” that will require a “deliberate cost-benefit analysis” of the war’s fortunes and merits, as well as the end of an “open-ended commitment.” While he said that he doesn’t support Rep. David Obey’s (D-Wis.) version of a war tax, he supports “bringing it into the normal budget process” and offsetting spending with cuts to irrelevant defense programs. “Now, if that will take a tax, because we can’t find the programs — for example, the $79 billion given to oil companies, fossil fuel companies in tax cuts, incentives and those types of, I believe, … benefits that can help pay for this war — if we’re not willing to go there, then we should stand up and say, here’s how we should raise the revenues,” he said. “We should be paying for this up front.”

And what about Specter, his Senate primary rival who opposes the troop increase? What would Sestak tell a skeptical or antiwar Pennsylvania voter? “I need them to know, very, very much, that political calculation cannot enter into my deliberations on this,” he said, citing his Navy experience and the time he spent directing defense policy for the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. “It’s too important for you and for Americans, and I would be giving you short shrift, at least in my experience, to take a political position rather than a national security position after I have looked at the issues.”

“I do not want to abdicate that constitutional responsibility I have in Congress, and will have in the Senate also,” Sestak added. “People did that for Iraq, and George Bush made the decision for them that it was indispensable, and they voted for that war. I won’t do that, because the constitutional requirement is for me to make an assessment whether [a war] is indispensable or not, and I have said it is, and I need [voters] to know why.” (Specter voted for the Iraq war.)

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