Top of the Ticket

Political commentary from Andrew Malcolm

« Previous Post | Top of the Ticket Home | Next Post »

Sen. Robert Byrd launches Afghan war warning blast at Obama

Anyone who's ever been anywhere near military combat knows that if you hear an incoming shell, it's likely too late to duck. President Obama and his senior staff, contemplating the latest new military strategy to correct the mess in Afghanistan, might want to prepare to duck down there in the White House bunker.

There's a large-caliber shell incoming from Capitol Hill, and it was launched Wednesday by none other than the frail man who has served in the Senate longer than any other person in American history. (UPDATE: An early version of this item said Congress instead of the Senate.)

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the 91-year-old Democratic institution from West Virginia, has been in the hospital more in the last year than he's been on the Senate floor. He rarely votes anymore. He rarely speaks there either. But Wednesday he got himself there with the help of aides.

And he had a lot to say.

Seated at his desk, speaking slowly from a prepared text and waving his right arm for emphasis (see C-SPAN video above), Byrd delivered an as-yet little-noticed 13-minute speech on the Afghanistan conflict that history may show was the first shot in a politically divisive struggle within....

...the Democrat party -- and perhaps the country -- over-investing much more in the eight-year war there that the U.S. and its allies are losing to the forces of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Byrd made many points, slowly but firmly. "I am compelled to ask," he said, "does it really take 100,000 (U.S.) troops to find Osama bin Laden? If Al Qaeda has moved to Pakistan, will these troops in Afghanistan add what to the effort to defeat Al Qaeda?"

He added angrily: "And how much will this cost? How much in terms of more dollars? How much in terms of American blood?"

He criticized, not Obama, but generals Petraeus and McChrystal, who Byrd said had bought into the "mission creep" of Afghan nation-building. "These generals," Byrd said, "have lost sight of America's primary strategic objective to disrupt and defang -- in other words, pull the teeth right out of the bone -- of Al Qaeda."

Byrd spoke powerfully for a growing segment of the president's party that is at least skeptical of continued involvement there, let alone escalation as reportedly recommended in a Pentagon report. While he'd rather focus on driving domestic healthcare reform, Afghanistan and Byrd's booming warning shot place the president in a difficult position.

For nearly three years now Obama has said that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity" to deny terrorists the safe haven they used to train for the 9/11 attacks that seem dimmer in the American mind nowadays.

After incorrectly predicting that President's Bush's 2007 troop surge in Iraq would worsen that war, Obama ordered his own troop surge into Afghanistan last spring, bringing the U.S. total to about 68,000 with another 30,000-40,000 now being requested to avoid defeat.


The president is expected to announce his decision in the next couple of weeks, likely before his long Asian trip next month.

Obama has given no public indication of his leanings on the latest Pentagon requests, although his recent public statements on the conflict have omitted mention of the Taliban and Afghan nation-building. This would make an exit definition of victory significantly easier someday.

However, Obama's obviously aware of polls showing war support waning and barely a quarter of Americans favoring any increased troop commitments. Opposition to the war is also mounting on Obama's political left, already impatient with his lack of progress to believe in on such issues as gay rights and healthcare.

And there have been repeated reports that Vice President Joe Biden opposes any more troops. In fact, at least one prominent blogger, Arianna Huffington, suggests that if Obama does dispatch reinforcements, Biden should resign the vice presidency.

That opposition would make sense. Biden was a senator when Obama was in sixth grade and seared into the VP's political mind is the memory of Vietnam and Democratic President Lyndon Johnson's controversial pouring of American troops into that distant guerrilla war that resulted in Johnson's forcible surrender of any attempt at a second elected term.

That nationally divisive war under a Democratic president also helped bring about Republican presidencies for 20 of the next 24 years. 

Here's something else little noticed. In recent weeks, Biden aides and allies have assisted or helped foment stories in various media -- most recently the Associated Press and Newsweek -- that describe Biden as invisibly influential with the rookie chief executive, powerfully and persuasively using his long D.C. political experience to help the 47-year-old president, who never finished his first U.S. Senate term after sitting in a state Legislature.

In the past, such public puffing up of the No. 2 would usually be snappily snuffed by presidential staffs behind the scenes and through anonymous counter-leaks. No such things this time. That implies approval.

As it happens, having a Washington veteran with long foreign policy experience seen as internally influential and opposed to an enlarged U.S. Afghan commitment against the terrorists would give any inexperienced president very helpful political cover if that president should decide to follow such advice.

-- Andrew Malcolm

To arrange for incoming Twitter alerts on each new outgoing Ticket item, click here. Or follow us   @latimestot  We're also on Facebook over here.

Video courtesy of C-SPAN. Photo: Associated Press

Comments () | Archives (10)

The comments to this entry are closed.


The media should boycott the White House for the treatment of the FOX Network.

You know why?

What when the White House starts boycotting Network after Network, newsmedia after newsmedia, what then?

Please, read this:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the trade unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me. – Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984)


So we are still lost. will we ever learn from history?

Byrd is not the man "who has served in Congress longer than any other person in American history." Until November 18, 2009, that honor still belongs to Carl T. Haden (D-AZ).

Biden did not win his first term to office until 1972. That year Nixon was elected to a second term and LBJ had been out of office for 4 years. Obama may have been in the 6th grade at that time, but Biden was certainly not present when LBJ made his Vietnam commitments throughout the middle 1960's. Perhaps the reporter should do some kind of research before making such an outrageously wrong statement.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam. That was a cold war carryover we inherited from the French colonialists. Anyone who knows what's going on in the region knows that Pakistan is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. The Taliban is trying to take over both Pakistan and Afghanistan. If they are allowed to do so, they will have nuclear weapons and make the current conflict look like a picnic. Al Quaida saw an ally in the Taliban when they ran Afghanistan prior to 9/11 as they appear to share many of the same Sharia fundamentalist values (no education for women, no tolerance for other religions, etc). All Bush did with Afghanistan was push back the Taliban into the remote regions so they could regroup, and also push them into the remote regions of Pakistan. By taking his eye off the ball in that region by going into Iraq, he enabled the Taliban to regroup and come back with more support from the locals in the outlying areas. The corrupt puppet government we installed and supported has nowhere near the control the Taliban ever did. Meanwhile, Bush gave billions to Pakistan with no strings so Mushareff could buy heavy weaponry to defend against India, who does not want a war with Pakistan. Mushareff was and is an idiot. Once he was forced out and we got the Zardari government to agree to actually fight terrorism, it was proven that the Taliban and Al Quaeda were quite active in Pakistan. We are living that proof today. What we really have is a war that knows no borders, and an enemy that seems willing to die for their cause. I am not a hawk, but neither am I a sheep or an idiot. We need to have a concerted effort to destroy the Taliban and Al Quaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or there will be no end to the threat of terror to all of us "infidels" around the world. Would Senator Byrd be saying to pull the troops out in WWII? Wake up Senator, this is WWIII. P.S. I am a Democrat who voted for Obama.

Robert Byrd: an argument, in and of himself, for mandatory congressional/senatorial term limits

I am just a soldier. I will probably be heading to Afghanistan in the not to distant future. Please remember what I did for all of you. Please remember my sacrifice. And please remember to treat one another with respect and dignity, independent of political, religious, or ideological view. It is my honor to serve my country. I want to be proud of my country and of my countrymen. Please grant me the opportunity to be proud of these things.

The problem with this is the fact that this senator must be wheeled around by aides. This man has no place in the Senate doing the People's work. he is a walking ad for term limits and a fixed retirement age for Congress.
We should, however, give him a greak for his age and infirmities. Perhaps he is confused. Afterall, Byrd was the Grand Master (head PooPa) of the Klu Kluk Klan and earned the nickname sheets for he many years of devotion to their cause (and has NEVER apologize). maybe he is getting confused since many of the Taliban wear sheet like garments and he might be thinking about the FBI chasing his "boys" back int eh day. It might be disturbing to him and so he just wants our men in uniform to stop chasing the sheet wearers.

We crushed the Taliban (with the help of the Northern Alliance) way back in 2002 and installed our friendly Mr. Karsai who still is in charge somewhere in Kabul. So since we won the war and our guy is sitting on the throne (with the approval of many Purple-Fingered People) why can't we declare victory and send the troops back to their bases in Germany?

Why is it so hard for readers to enter relevant comments? How does this article pertain to a perceived feud between the White House and Fox News? How does nit-picking the author's writings further the conversation? Do we (as Americans) have such tunnel vision that we can't see anything beyond our own political agenda or have such a superiority complex that we think we can write better than a journalist from the LA Times?


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...

About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
President Obama
Republican Politics
Democratic Politics



Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: