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By Peter Slevin, Washington Post , Published November 22 2009

Afghanistan debate echoes in Minnesota town

WINONA, Minn. – Christina and Jesse Fladmark were married on Flag Day last year at the band shell on the Mississippi River. They chose the spot largely because Jesse, a soldier, draws strength from the nearby war memorial.

Twenty months later, Jesse is loading military convoys in Afghanistan and Chris is teaching math at Cotter High School, staying in touch with her husband as best she can and counting the months until he comes home. When she mentions his mission, people often say, “Why are we even over there? They should bring everyone home.”

“That’s really hurtful, even though they are trying to be nice,” Chris Fladmark, 27, said over a Baileys and hot chocolate on a rainy southern Minnesota night. “That’s not how I or my husband see it.”

How to see the Afghan war is a conundrum that stretches from Winona to Washington in a nation deeply divided over the wisdom of the fight. Opinion here, where Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., recently devoted an entire town hall meeting to the subject, echoes a new Washington Post-ABC News poll that reveals widespread doubts.

As President Barack Obama seeks a strategy for a war now in its ninth year, just 45 percent of respondents said they approve of his handling of the issue, while 47 percent disapprove. Fifty-two percent said the war has not been worth its costs, a rise of more than

12 percent since March.

“I pray,” Fladmark said, referring to Obama’s imminent decision about whether to send more troops. “I pray that God will make that decision for him.”

Winona, population 27,069, is a blue-collar town where Walz came to take a sounding. After teaching geography, coaching football and spending more than two decades in the National Guard, he beat a six-term Republican in 2006 largely because he argued that the Bush administration was botching the Iraq war.

With another war gaining prominence now, Walz keeps returning to the question of a Vietnam veteran who told him that Obama’s dilemma over sending perhaps 40,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan reminded him of another president – Lyndon B. Johnson – and another choice.

“His question,” Walz said, “was, ‘Could we have gotten to a peaceful Vietnam without the loss of 58,000 Americans? Could we get to a fairly stable al-Qaida operation that is less of a heavy footprint, that is more effective?’

“I think they’re asking me to challenge my assumption on that, and I will,” said Walz, whose Minnesota National Guard duty included a tour in Italy in support of the Afghan fight. He contends that his predecessor in Congress, Gil Gutknecht, failed in 2006 to grasp the “intensity” of dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, and he predicts that “the emotion on this thing will get to that point ... by next year.”

At Winona’s busy new American Legion hall on “cheap burger night,” Amanda Johnson is already there.

“We’ve been there so much and lost so many. We shouldn’t be caught up in somebody else’s war – especially when it’s a guerrilla war,” Johnson, 22, says while playing cards and drinking beer. “It seems so senseless.”

Across the bar, Richard Franzen Jr. says the battle to topple the Taliban and kill Osama bin Laden and his followers made sense in the angry weeks after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center.

“Now I’m confused. What is our objective?” asks Franzen, 38, a printing company worker and Obama voter. “It just keeps trudging on day after day, at more expense and more cost.”

For many, Afghanistan remains the background war, less understood than the war in Iraq.

“Afghanistan’s got the bomb, don’t they?” asks Jim Thompson, a Winona house painter who thinks he heard somewhere that al-Qaida is close to acquiring nuclear weapons.

“If we pulled out of Afghanistan, it would be instantly overrun. Pakistan would give them the bomb and they would nuke Israel, and that would have an effect on the whole world,” Thompson says. “So we have to step in.”

Army Sgt. Timothy Martin was disheartened to return from an Afghan tour and hear Minnesotans say, “ ‘I didn’t know there was a war over there.’ It made me feel that the last year and a half was a waste of time.”

“Do you remember 9/11? It could happen again,” said Martin, who remains a believer in the original mission. “As long as we’re over there, doing what we have to do, they’re not over here.”

At Cotter, a Catholic school where more than two dozen students and instructors gather each day to pray for peace, one of the regulars is teacher Michael Donlin. He doubts that Afghanistan will become a democratic society or a reliable military partner, yet he fears a hasty exit.

Obama, he thinks, is in a “terrible, terrible spot.”

“If they’re going to tell me they’re going to stabilize the country, I’m against it,” said Donlin, 63, an Army veteran. “If they say we can put these clowns on the run, I’m OK with it.”

Jim Bambenek watched in the auditorium of Winona State University as constituents warned Walz of “nuclear holocaust” and eternal shame if the Americans pulled out – and a deadly quagmire if they stayed. A vet himself, Bambenek was so ambivalent about his own war that he dodged the draft before becoming an Army photographer in Vietnam.

“There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about Vietnam,” said Bambenek, who choked up at the Walz meeting, disturbed by the thought of more families splintered and more soldiers killed.

“If I had my druthers, I’d say we should get out of there, but there’s so much going on that could collapse the entire world,” said Bambenek, a retired commercial photographer.