House debate reflects U.S. impatience with Afghan War

McClatchy NewspapersMay 25, 2011 

WASHINGTON — As the House of Representatives engaged Wednesday in a tense debate over U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the first since the death of Osama bin Laden, some lawmakers in each party called for a quicker exit of U.S. troops, reflecting that the public mood toward American involvement there is growing impatient.

The House is considering two separate, bipartisan votes to force President Barack Obama to establish clear, expedited timetables for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, where about 100,000 are now.

Obama plans to begin withdrawing some forces in July, and he aims to have most of them out by 2014.

While the efforts to speed up the president's timetable are expected to fail, thanks largely to strong opposition from Republicans, the votes could be close, and they could occur as soon as Thursday.

"There's been some change in the mood," said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, "but we have to also remember the bad guys are still out there."

The evolving momentum for change is "a growing thing, particularly now that we got bin Laden. I think what (the debate) says is the country's moving in that direction," said Lawrence Korb, who was an assistant defense secretary under President Ronald Reagan. Also sparking the effort is concern over the cost of the war at a time when lawmakers are searching frantically for ways to cut spending.

However, Korb cautioned, efforts to change policy are "not going to pass." Polls find that the nation remains divided over Afghanistan policy, and the White House has signaled that it won't accept having its hands tied. Korb's now a fellow at Center for American Progress, a liberal research group.

The bids to prod Obama on Afghanistan are part of legislation that sets U.S. defense policy for fiscal 2012, which begins Oct. 1. The annual defense measure is always a vehicle for debate on national security issues, including whether the Pentagon is spending too much.

Afghanistan is the focus of two major proposals.

The most popular appears to be one authored by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Walter Jones, R-N.C. It would require Obama to come up with a specific time frame "on accelerated transition of military operations to Afghan authorities."

Another, pushed by Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, would require a similar plan, but it also calls for a shift in U.S. strategy. Instead of trying to build a prosperous democracy in Afghanistan via a counterinsurgency campaign, it urges a more limited counterterrorism military strategy, confined to targeting the enemy.

"The success of this mission does not change the reality that America still faces a determined and violent adversary," they said in a letter to Obama that they circulated among their colleagues. "It does, however, require us to re-examine our policy of nation building in Afghanistan. We believe it is no longer the best way to defend America against terror attacks, and we urge you to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan that are not crucial to the immediate national security objective of combating al Qaida."

McGovern offered a similar measure in 2009 that drew 138 votes. Last year, another drew 162 votes. If this year's draws close to the 218 House majority, it will send a strong signal to Obama that the nation is losing patience with his policy as he enters a re-election campaign.

Among those who plan to vote differently this time is Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J. "Bin Laden is the difference that changes my opinion," he said.

Others are remaining steadfast. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., a retired Army lieutenant colonel who trained Afghan officers, called congressional desires to withdraw quickly from Afghanistan nonsense.

"Is the Taliban still fighting? I spent 2.5 years in Afghanistan. Just because you kill Osama bin Laden does not mean that the Taliban has stopped fighting," he said. "Now can we fight a little smarter? Absolutely."

Asked about the efforts to curb U.S. involvement, West said, "I would take these gentlemen over and let them get shot at a few times and maybe they'd have a different opinion."

The White House, in a policy statement on the legislation, didn't specifically address the proposals but wrote: "The administration has serious concerns with several provisions that constrain the ability of the armed forces to carry out their missions."

McGovern argued that his plan wasn't a rebuke to the administration.

"If this gets a decent vote, it provides some wind at his back," McGovern said. "Then, come July, he can do more than a token withdrawal."

P.J. Crowley, a former Obama administration State Department spokesman, said the Afghanistan measures were premature.

"The killing of bin Laden gives the president more flexibility, but it doesn't change the fundamentals," said Crowley, who's a retired Air Force colonel. "We will be committed to Afghanistan for years. The discussion should not be about disengagement in Afghanistan, but a shift from a military strategy to a civilian strategy."

Crowley said Obama "put a plan in place. There's a game plan. Follow the game plan."

(Lesley Clark contributed to this article.)

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