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Florida Democrats embody the divide over what to do with Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — The war in Afghanistan has been one of the most vexing issues facing President Barack Obama and Democrats, and the division over what to do was summed up Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings.

"I'm conflicted," the South Florida Democrat said.

"I'm what might be best described as a dove-hawk. I don't like to bother with people. But when you bother with me I will try to do you in. I'm not averse to sending more troops into Afghanistan. But I'm going to hold my fire until we get a better understanding."

Like their counterparts across the country, Florida Democrats reflect the varying opinions on how to deal with the war, which reached its eighth anniversary Wednesday and has resulted in the deaths of 56 Floridians (and nearly 800 members of the U.S. military total).

Hastings and others are choosing their words carefully. Some, such as Sen. Bill Nelson, say there is no question more troops are needed. And there's Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando, who thinks the United States should get out of the country all together.

Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, are trapped between calls from the liberal base of the party against any troop buildup, those who feel one is vital and still others who think a change in strategy is best.

The war is unpopular and, thus, fraught with political risk. According to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, public support for the war has dropped to 40 percent from 44 percent in July. Support for a troop increase stood at 46 percent.

So, for now, some Florida lawmakers are waiting to take their cue from the president. Obama is weighing a push from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal to add as many as 40,000 troops against calls from Vice President Joe Biden and others for more surgical strikes with drones and special forces.

"He's the commander in chief," said Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, who was on his way to a briefing on the war Wednesday afternoon. "I don't want to get in the way of that."

But a few hours later, Meek said the briefing left him with a clear understanding that more troops are required.

"I can see there's a greater need for force protection," he said, but he is not sure what the level should be.

Rep. Allen Boyd, a conservative Democrat from North Florida and Vietnam War veteran, said he remained open-minded but quickly added the situation needs immediate attention. "We went into Afghanistan (in 2001) and dismantled the Taliban. We had them on the run. Then we lost our focus and involved ourselves and all our resources in Iraq. And — bingo! — they've all come back."

Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa had a similar outlook, casting former President George W. Bush's push to wage war with Iraq as a monumental "distraction." Castor and other members of Congress will get a private briefing today from retired Gen. James L. Jones, who serves as national security adviser.

Castor's main question: "Is there still a security threat in Afghanistan?"

There are polar viewpoints among Florida Democrats.

• Sen. Nelson, who sits on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, said he supports more troops but leaves the number up to security experts. "We can't afford to lose in Afghanistan," he said.

• Rep. Grayson is co-sponsor of a bill that would block any additional troops for Afghanistan. "We're approaching a point where war seems normal," he said. "It's not. We have gone way, way off course. It doesn't make us safer, and the cost in both blood and money is staggering."

Obama has shifted some attention away from health care recently to address the growing debate over Afghanistan, a war that has slipped in and out of the public conscious but remains highly divisive.

In a speech Tuesday, Obama made it clear that he remained committed to the war. But he indicated he was still unsure how to proceed.

"We will target al-Qaida wherever they take root," Obama said. "We will not yield in our pursuit, and we are developing the capacity and the cooperation to deny a safe haven to any who threaten America and its allies."

Republican Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow said Obama has "painted himself into a corner" by campaigning on a pledge to extract the nation from Iraq and focus on the "good war" in Afghanistan.

"I think he's hard pressed to publicly walk away" and turn down a troop increase, Putnam said.

Putnam thinks any strategy should include a broader look at the region, including Pakistan — a point echoed by several Florida Democrats.

Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, was hesitant to express an opinion on the troop increase, saying it is one that should not be based on politics and one the president "has got to make."

But when pressed, Young said, "We've all have to pay close attention to what Gen. McChrystal says."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com

Florida Democrats embody the divide over what to do with Afghanistan 10/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2009 9:19pm]
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