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Owens, Doheny agree U.S. should leave Afghanistan

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Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, and Republican Matthew A. Doheny, opponents in the race for the House of Representatives next year, agree the United States should pull most of its military forces out of Afghanistan.

The war, which has lasted 11 years, has had an outsize effect on the Watertown area. The 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, has been the most-deployed unit in the Army since the wars in Afghanistan, and later Iraq, broke out.

The candidates differed on some specific aspects of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and on other hotspots in the Middle East and North Africa. But their careful responses when asked about ground troops in other areas of the world illustrated the sensibilities of reluctant politicians running for office in war-weary times.

On the withdrawal of ground troops, Mr. Doheny said he was concerned about President Barack Obama’s insistence on setting a timetable for pulling out U.S. troops, which will occur by 2014, Mr. Obama has said.

“I’ve always thought it was a policy that doesn’t provide the military leaders on the ground with flexibility, and it tells the bad guy what we’re doing,” Mr. Doheny said. “But it’s time to wind up operations in Afghanistan.”

But Mr. Owens said setting a timetable is necessary to move more than 100,000 troops out of the country, both for practical and strategic reasons. You can’t simply pull troops out overnight, so it’s necessary to say when you’re going to leave, he said.

“To those who say you shouldn’t give a timetable, what they’re really saying is you can’t ever withdraw,” Mr. Owens said. “That’s the logical conclusion of their position.”

Asked whether the United States should leave a small number of personnel in the country after the majority of troops leave, Mr. Doheny and Mr. Owens said military leaders should make those decisions.

Foreign policy for a member of Congress is a delicate balance, as both of the candidates’ responses helped illustrate. Mr. Doheny noted it’s up to Congress to declare war and pay for it, but also said the House of Representatives doesn’t need 435 commanders in chief.

Mr. Owens mentioned a similar “balance.”

“I think we have to be diligent in making sure that the president does not get us into situations that require huge commitments of troops and dollars without Congress consenting or agreeing to that,” he said. “I think it’s a difficult balance to wage.”

Other foreign trouble areas include Syria, whose dictator, Bashar al-Assad, is carrying out a brutal repression of an uprising against his regime, according to human rights groups; Iran, which Israel and the United States fear will acquire a nuclear weapon; Libya, where the U.S. ambassador was recently killed in a terrorist attack; and Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has taken power.

Mr. Doheny said his approach to such problems, such as Iran, would be to support Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Failing that, Mr. Doheny said, he would work in Congress to make sure Mr. Obama didn’t “appease the Ayatollah.”

He also said the United States should consider cutting off foreign aid to countries such as Egypt, whose new regimes might not be as friendly to the United States as their predecessors.

Mr. Owens was more charitable in his assessment of the Obama administration’s approach to conflagrations such as Libya. The United States helped support a bombing campaign and didn’t commit any ground troops.

“I think that it’s very difficult for us after 12 years of war and the tremendous loss of life and blood as well as money for us to become involved with boots on the ground in another war zone,” Mr. Owens said. “It’s something I would be very, very reluctant to do.”

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