Congress Must Scrutinize Obama's Afghanistan Plans

In Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack, he recounts then–national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice offering her support for a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq with the cynical observation, "How much debate do you need?" Quite a bit, as it turned out, but as we all know, Congress failed to offer much scrutiny of President Bush's plans for war, with disastrous results.

Now that President Obama has announced his intention to send 30,000 more American troops into harm's way in Afghanistan, Congress must not make the same mistake again.

Instead of simply following the president, Congress must now lead as well. As the only institution directly able to hold the president's feet to the fire on Afghanistan policy (short of the American people in 2012), Congress must hold hearings that pose difficult questions to the president's advisers. It must demand far more specific and detailed answers than the president offered Tuesday about his exit strategy for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the benchmarks that he will use to define success on the ground.

To date, congressional hearings on Afghanistan have not probed deeply enough the dubious political and military assumptions underpinning U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was even prevented by Democrats from testifying before Congress for fear of that he would embarrass President Obama by accentuating possible divisions between the two men.

Of course, the performance of the Democratic Congress hardly compares with GOP fecklessness in conducting oversight of the war in Iraq. Republicans seemed more interested in carrying political water for the White House than scrutinizing President Bush's war plans for Iraq. And similar political considerations, such as the fear of politically undercutting a Democratic president or more directly opening themselves up to GOP attacks of weakness on national security, are no doubt motivating some Democrats today.

But if ever there were a time to resist such urges, it would be now, just as the administration is ramping up the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

First, this means using upcoming congressional hearings to do more than rubber-stamp troop increases; instead, Congress must carefully consider the administration's political and military strategy for Afghanistan. Can a counterinsurgency campaign work in concert with an Afghan government that is widely viewed as corrupt, dysfunctional, and increasingly illegitimate? What is the exit strategy for U.S. troops? How does the president's strategy strengthen and reinforce efforts to root out terrorists in neighboring Pakistan? Above all, Congress must demand that the administration's representatives offer a clear sense of what success in Afghanistan looks like, and when and how we can expect to achieve it.

Second, in 2007, when President Bush announced the surge in Iraq, he offered a series of benchmarks for progress. But months later when testifying to Congress, administration officials, along with Gen. David Petraeus, then the American commanding officer in Iraq, made falling civilian casualties the most important metric, even though they weren't one of the original benchmarks. This time, Congress must ensure that in the months to come the administration adheres to the specific, verifiable benchmarks that it will use to denote progress in Afghanistan. And Congress should use the power of the purse to hold the administration's feet to the fire if those metrics are not met.

Finally, with the national debt mounting, Congress must make certain that the president's escalation is paid for, and if need be, it should consider instituting a war tax to pay for it. Some might argue that once America commits to a conflict—as Congress did in 2001 with its nearly unanimous approval of the use of force in Afghanistan in response to the attacks of September 11—lawmakers should not meddle in the details of how that war is executed. But the conduct of the war effort in Afghanistan is as much a responsibility of the Congress as it is of the president. It is the Congress, after all, that is mandated by the Constitution with the responsibility to declare war, raise and support armies, provide a navy, and so on. The historical reasons for this were hardly accidental. By placing such profound responsibilities on the shoulders of congressmen and -women and senators, the Founding Fathers provided a check on the executive branch, while also ensuring that the American people's voice would be heard via their direct representatives.

All this might seem like a difficult burden for the Obama administration to bear, but a more engaged Congress could actually be a blessing for the president. Congressional input and involvement will make sure that the war is a shared responsibility between the legislative and executive branches, and will ensure that the war represents a collective political risk.

As it is now, the Afghanistan war could become Obama's burden alone, with marginal public backing. Ironically, if Congress seeks to protect Obama politically by not asking tough questions now, it risks putting him in greater long-term political danger.

The free rein given by the Republican Congress to President Bush helped contribute to the policy disaster that was the Iraq War, and those failures ultimately brought severe political consequences not just for Bush, but also congressional Republicans in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama said his goal as president would be to "change the mindset" of American foreign policy and prevent repeating the mistakes of the Iraq War. It will be up to Congress to ensure that he lives up to his words.