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Sen. Russ Feingold: White House Is Whistling Past Afghan Graveyard

In an exclusive interview, Feingold argues why his lone vote to oppose expanding the military by 30,000 soldiers was the right one.

In 2001, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., famously and courageously stood up as the lone senator to vote against the Patriot Act.

On July 21, 2009, he did it again, casting the lone vote opposing Sen. Joe Lieberman's, I-Conn., amendment to the 2010 Defense Authorization bill that immediately authorizes an expansion of the military by 30,000 troops. In an exclusive interview with The Nation , Feingold says he "did not believe it was in the best interest of our troops or our national security." The measure passed 93-1.

"Well, it's never easy," Feingold said of his solo stance opposing the measure. "People might try to distort what you're doing and suggest you don't think the troops should be supported, which I do -- I feel very strongly. But I don't think putting more and more of our troops into a situation that may not make sense is a way to support the troops or protect our country. It's a tough role to play. It's a role that I feel I'm obligated to play."

Feingold said he is increasingly disturbed by the war in Afghanistan, where troop levels are escalating by the month, U.S. casualties are mounting and the insurgency is expanding.

"It appears that no one even asked the president about [Afghanistan] at his [July 22] press conference after apparently 30 or 31 Americans were killed in Afghanistan last month. How is that possible?" Feingold asked. "People have to wake up to what's going on in Afghanistan, and my vote is a request that people wake up to what's happening, which is we are getting deeper and deeper into this situation in a way that I don't think necessarily makes sense at all and may actually be counterproductive."

On July 23, Vice President Joe Biden told the BBC that "in terms of national interest of Great Britain, the U.S. and Europe, [the war in Afghanistan] is worth the effort we are making and the sacrifice that is being felt. ... And more will come."

Feingold said Biden's statement and requests from Defense Secretary Robert Gates for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan are making him "very worried that this is heading into a free-fall of support for something that may not make sense."

Feingold said "the so-called surge may actually make matters worse by pushing militants into Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation which is still not effectively dealing with terrorist sanctuaries in that country." He is particularly concerned with what he calls the "balloon effect:" resistance fighters in Afghanistan being pushed into Pakistan, where "they may be safer."

As a member of the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees, Feingold has grilled both civilian and military officials. In May, he asked Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan: "Are we sure that when we ... get up to a level of 70,000 troops, are we sure that that isn't making the situation in Pakistan potentially worse?"

Holbrooke replied that the troop buildup "could end up creating a pressure in Pakistan which would add to the instability."

"Are you sure that the troop buildup in Afghanistan will not be counterproductive vis-à-vis Pakistan?" Feingold asked.

"No," Holbrooke replied. "I'm only sure that we are aware of the problem."

Feingold received a similar answer from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, in May: "Can I [be] 100 percent certain that won't destabilize Pakistan? I don't know the answer to that," Mullen said.

"This is something I've been trying to hammer away at," Feingold told The Nation . "They admitted that it's a problem, but where's the follow-up? This administration is almost whistling past the graveyard on this issue.