WASHINGTON — Americans are “sick and tired” of the war in Afghanistan, but there have been strategic and moral victories over the Taliban they seldom hear about from President Barack Obama, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Monday.
“So if the president of the United States won’t give this speech, I will,” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, told a luncheon audience at The National Press Club.
McKeon, whose district includes most of Simi Valley, repeatedly criticized the president for not letting the public know that the troops working with the Afghan National Security Forces are having an impact and improving the lives of civilians, particularly women.
“For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the president hasn’t taken credit for these victories,” he said. “The gains since 2009 are threefold — strategic, diplomatic and moral.”
He later noted that Afghanistan is still a monumental challenge.
McKeon also took shots at the way the White House has second-guessed counterinsurgency experts such as former Gen. David Petraeus and other military planners.
During a question-and-answer session, he was asked about plans to be unveiled by the Pentagon that will reduce the Army to the smallest it has been in several decades.
“In the last few years, we have changed our strategy that has stood us well since World War II — to be able to be equipped and ready to go (with) two major contingencies at a time. We have cut that back to fight one and hold one,” McKeon responded. “What we’re trying to do is solve our financial problems on the backs of our military, and that can’t be done.”
During his speech, he argued that war planning has been politicized.
“Even though the way that this White House has run this war has been outrageous — with White House staffers telling four-star generals their business — there has been unmistakable progress,” he said.
McKeon announced in January that he will not seek re-election and has endorsed Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, as his successor on the committee. He spent Monday morning with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the other “Big Eight” members — the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees and the defense appropriations subcommittee chairmen — going over the Pentagon budget to be released next week. Hagel provided several details about the budget in a separate speech Monday.
The Pentagon is expected to ask for $496 billion base budget for the year beginning Oct. 1. A senior House Armed Services staffer later confirmed that the Pentagon will be seeking another base realignment and closure commission, but that it is too soon to know if or how that would affect specific installations such as Naval Base Ventura County.
At the Press Club, McKeon discussed agreements involving Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO, as well as the assistance pledged the country through 2017 at recent multilateral conferences. He stressed that without a Bilateral Security Agreement, which President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign, gains can be lost.
“Put plainly, without our support — and that support includes presence and money — the Afghan Security Forces can’t execute,” he said.
McKeon made an case for sticking with the Afghanistan. “We owe it to ourselves to have a frank discussion about America’s moral responsibility in Afghanistan,” he said. “The Taliban are brutal.”
McKeon said he has watched a steady improvement in the living conditions in Afghanistan, including an increase in male life expectancy from 37 to 56 years since 2000, the addition of miles of paved roads and nearly 8 million children attending schools, including 3 million girls.
Asked by an audience member what the U.S. has got out of the years in Afghanistan, McKeon referred to improved treatment of “wounded warriors,” better intelligence capabilities, the use of drones to keep soldiers safer and how to dismantle the improvised explosive devices used by terrorists worldwide.
Pressed on drone strikes that have killed civilians and turned some people against the U.S., he acknowledged that there have been some civilian deaths but noted all wars have them. He argued that he would rather equip soldiers with an advantage over the enemy, saying: “I’d never want to send our troops into a fair fight.”