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Sen. Robert Byrd launches Afghan war warning blast at Obama

October 15, 2009 |  2:14 am

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

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Video courtesy of C-SPAN. Photo: Associated Press