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Veterans groups boost lobbying

By Jen Dimascio at Politico

With a White House decision on the direction of the war in Afghanistan still up in the air, and President Barack Obama considering whether to send as many as 40,000 additional U.S. troops, veterans groups on opposite sides of the debate are storming Capitol Hill this week to sway congressional opinion.

With U.S. deaths in Afghanistan rising and the Taliban resurgent, officials from the hawkish Veterans for Freedom and the dovish Veterans for Rethinking Afghanistan said they are increasing their lobbying campaigns to dramatically change how America conducts the eight-year war.

Veterans for Freedom kicks off Thursday at the District of Columbia’s American Legion post with a breakfast and strategy session, followed by a meeting with Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who represents the district where part of Fort Campbell — the military base that houses the 101st Airborne Division — is located.

After a news conference, and armed with embedded media, a group of 50 to 100 veterans will fan out across Capitol Hill for meetings with the staffs of key senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrats John Kerry of Massachusetts and Jim Webb of Virginia and Republicans John McCain of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas.

“This is a very important litmus test for Obama,” said Pete Hegseth, chairman of the group and a supporter of surging more U.S. forces into Afghanistan. He noted that, during the campaign, Obama called Afghanistan the “good war” and has endorsed continuing to fight a counterinsurgency there.

If Obama backs a request by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to send more U.S. forces to the country, “we’ll stand right next to them and support that,” Hegseth said.

On the other side of the issue is Veterans for Rethinking Afghanistan, a relatively new group, with a handful of members, that is trying to persuade lawmakers that U.S. war strategy in Afghanistan is a massive failure and that the military is part of the problem.

The group is starting to receive notice in the national media, particularly after a debate it had this week against Veterans for Freedom. Veterans for Rethinking Afghanistan met with the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and will check in with anti-Iraq war Democrats — including Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Reps. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee of California — trying to stuff their briefing books with reasons to end the military commitment to Afghanistan.

“Listen, you’ve got to stop falling in love with the military solution; it’s not feasible,” said Jake Diliberto, one of the group’s founders. “This is a war of poverty and cultural misunderstanding, and it’s an Afghan problem that we don’t have the means or the wisdom to figure out.”

In between the two groups is VoteVets.org, a veterans group with closer ties to the Democratic Party that has staked out the middle ground and is watching this week’s lobbying activities from the sidelines.

In 2007, Veterans for Freedom supported the surge of U.S. forces in Iraq, and VoteVets.org opposed it, advocating a drawdown from Iraq instead. But for now, the organization is still debating its position on the war in Afghanistan, said VoteVets Chairman Jon Soltz, and it is concentrating its efforts on climate change.

“The only mission that we think we’re sure can be successful is the military option,” Soltz said. But that’s not a matter of simply beefing up troops, he said, and it doesn’t address questions about whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a legitimate political partner, how much Pakistan cooperates inside its own territory in the fight against Al Qaeda and whether the U.S. government can provide the kind of humanitarian support and reconstruction that is required to boost security in Afghanistan.

VoteVets wants to see how the White House defines the goals of a troop buildup, Soltz said. “We’re waiting to see how they define success and whether these other elements can be achieved.”

Of the three groups, Veterans for Freedom has the most extensive lobbying background. The organization began in 2005 and helped cement support for the U.S. troop surge in Iraq by saturating Washington with advertising and sending 400 of its members to the Hill on two occasions to twist arms.

And history suggests that if Obama does not support McChrystal’s request for more troops, Veterans for Freedom may turn on the president. The group actively ran a whisper campaign in western Pennsylvania to defeat Democratic Rep. John Murtha and has backed a slate of largely Republican veterans for Congress.

The group’s founder, David Bellavia, who in 2008 ran unsuccessfully for Congress in New York, attacked Kerry and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2005 for supporting statements that Iraqis wanted the United States to leave their country, claiming in an article on FrontPageMag.com that the comments were “a political attack on the troops, an attack that is aiding our enemy.” The publication is run by Holocaust denier David Horowitz.

With the U.S. drawing down in Iraq and on the brink of ramping up in Afghanistan, Bellavia’s group is now courting Kerry and says it has a meeting scheduled at the White House to discuss war strategy. That’s completely consistent, Hegseth said, because Veterans for Freedom is dedicated to a single issue: winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The newest group, Veterans for Rethinking Afghanistan, has outside backing from Brave New Films and its president, liberal activist and filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who created documentaries including “The Real McCain” and “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.” Greenwald has been a regular donor to liberal members of Congress and supported Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid.

Members of the group say that one of the arguments they will make to lawmakers on Capitol Hill is that the price of remaining in Afghanistan is simply too high. Leighton Akio Woodhouse, political director for Brave New Films, asserted that supporting one soldier for one year costs American taxpayers $1 million.

“The American people need to be aware of exactly what a counterinsurgency means,” said former Marine Sgt. Devon Read, a member of the group who served in Iraq. “A counterinsurgency campaign is going to mean not 40,000 troops but 150,000 troops or more, 10 years of a presence in Afghanistan and tens of thousands more dead troops.”