Dems struggle to shift focus to Afghanistan from Iraq

In addition to addressing the White House’s Iraq “surge” plan, Democrats could be facing another quandary: redirecting attention to the war in Afghanistan and the search for al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden.

Several top Democrats, including 2008 presidential hopefuls Sens. Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), said a troop increase should occur in Afghanistan rather than Iraq.

Clinton, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) returned from a congressional delegation to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and are expected to talk about the trip today.

But congressional plans have yet to emerge for keeping a firm grip on Afghanistan, which is dealing with rampant poppy production and is at risk of sliding back into the hands of Taliban insurgents.

Several lawmakers fear that the Iraq plan will overshadow any efforts related to Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is the biggest concern, but I see no concerted effort” to deal with the issues there, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said. “Iraq is the dominant thing and we have to deal with that.”

Two years ago, Lautenberg sent a letter to Bush asking him why the United States had not captured bin Laden after then-CIA Director Porter Goss said he had an “excellent idea” where the 9/11 plotter was hiding.

“I would like to continue that pursuit,” Lautenberg recently said of the military’s efforts to track down al Qaeda’s leader. “But the picture is so clouded by the discussion on Iraq that you can’t really be sure that it is going to be successful.”

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan whose troops are fighting alongside NATO coalition forces have called for reinforcements against resurgent Taliban fighters. Military officials said the number of attacks against NATO forces tripled year-over-year in 2006, to 5,000.

It has been reported that at least one Army battalion fighting in Afghanistan could be deployed within weeks to fight in Iraq as part of the president’s “surge” plan.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, said the Pentagon could send more troops into Afghanistan despite the strain the military faces in Iraq.

Although he said the U.S. focus should shift to Afghanistan, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) plans to refrain from calling for additional troops there because he wants to ensure any effort is multinational.

“Democrats feel very strongly that the war in Afghanistan is much more directly related to the war on terror,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “I am sad that they are taking another [battalion] out.”

Schumer last year passed an amendment to the 2007 defense appropriations bill, allocating $700 million for narcotics eradication in Afghanistan.

Schumer was not alone in his victory. Two other Democrats, Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) were successful in reactivating a CIA unit dedicated to finding bin Laden in an amendment to the same Senate bill that provided $200 million for the mission.

“We know from the 9/11 Commission Iraq was not involved in the attacks of 9/11. It was ... al Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden,” Conrad said at the time. “That is where we have to focus.” Conrad is now the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

“Everyone would agree that the effort in Iraq has diverted efforts from the operations in Afghanistan,” said Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Expeditionary Forces subcommittee. “We are engaged in two simultaneous wars and we do not have the resources that we would have had on Sept. 12, 2001.”

Taylor, however, commended the U.S. military’s efforts to find bin Laden under less-than-conducive circumstances. 

“Seeing how big the place is, steep valleys and extremes of hot and cold — I can empathize [with] how difficult and dangerous it is for our troops,” said Taylor, who has been to Afghanistan several times. “Osama bin Laden needs to be caught and brought to justice.”

He added that the committees with jurisdiction over the military need to allocate resources for the fight in Afghanistan, but also take into consideration how difficult the terrain is in Afghanistan, complicating the military’s mission.

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the armed services panel, is planning to hold hearings about the situation in Afghanistan this month. Skelton has been concerned that Afghanistan has been ignored and has called the conflict there “the forgotten war.”

The key to finding bin Laden may not lie with spending more money on technology. Rather, dedicating Army Special Forces (known as white special operations forces) to missions wherein soldiers spend time in Afghan villages, establishing long-term relationships and building trust, could lead to information on the al Qaeda leader, according to Andr