Washington – The Obama administration opens an internal debate this week on the size of a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan amid growing doubts in Congress about the cost and purpose of the decade-long war and public pressure to bring it to a rapid end.
Obama is expected to announce next month the size and pace of a drawdown he promised in December 2009, when he rolled out a strategy that included adding 30,000 U.S. troops in hopes of breaking the Taliban's momentum.
He will reach the number in deliberations with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Gen. David H. Petraeus, who are known to favor a small initial reduction in the 100,000 troops on the ground, and other officials who want to move more quickly.
Obama has given few hints of which way he is leaning, but the ground may be shifting in favor of a much smaller military footprint. Gates is retiring at the end of the month. Petraeus is moving to the CIA, where he will no longer have direct influence over the size of the military force.
And with Washington focused on trimming the federal deficit, the White House is coping with a wave of public frustration over a conflict that is costing $120 billion a year.
Ending the war is one of the few ideas to attract bipartisan backing on Capitol Hill. Last month, 204 House members voted for an amendment that would have required the administration to come up with an accelerated deadline for pulling out of Afghanistan, the strongest expression of disaffection with the war since operations began in late 2001.
The amendment by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., would have compelled Obama to report within 60 days on an exit strategy, including a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops and handing off military operations to the Afghan government.
Although the measure did not pass, it captured 42 more votes than a similar proposal last July. Support ranged from the traditional antiwar left to “tea party” conservatives upset about the cost of the war.
Most of those who supported the amendment were Democrats, including the entire House Democratic leadership. Among them was the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who had been a reliable supporter of the war in years past.
“It is essential that we fight the smartest war possible against terrorists – but it is fair to ask how a massive troop presence in Afghanistan continues to help us accomplish that goal,” Hoyer said in a speech before the vote.
The number of Republicans who supported the amendment increased to 26 – nearly triple the total from the last vote.
Lawmakers say they've lost their appetite for an expensive conflict at a time of high deficits and other priorities closer to home. They cite the death of Osama bin Laden last month, and they contend that mercurial Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not a reliable partner. Some question the wisdom of committing resources to Afghanistan when Pakistan and Yemen may be bigger hotbeds of terrorist activity.
During a confirmation hearing Wednesday for Ryan Crocker, Obama's nominee for ambassador to Afghanistan, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry, D-Mass., a close White House ally, captured the sense of impatience. “While the U.S. has genuine national security interests in Afghanistan, our current commitment in troops and in dollars is neither proportional to our interests nor sustainable,” Kerry said.
Obama's habit is to split the difference when confronted with competing pressures. Past practice suggests he may opt for a small initial reduction followed by a series of more aggressive withdrawals culminating in the formal handoff of security responsibilities to the Afghans in 2014. McGovern and others who met with the president at the White House recently said they did not get the impression he would order a major troop reduction right away.
“I didn't get the assurance that I wished I would have received that this would be a dramatic drawdown,” McGovern said in an interview.
Electoral realities may also sway the decision. The public is increasingly tired of the war – a fact not lost on White House political advisers gearing up for a re-election campaign next year. Americans tend to rate the war low on their list of concerns, but growing numbers believe the U.S. should get out now.
The administration debate will take place in summer, a time when the pace of fighting and the number of casualties traditionally increase. Unlike past wars, however, in which casualties were a singular source of frustration, voters seem more annoyed by the drain on U.S. resources.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center found that most Americans believe that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the main expense driving the federal budget deficit.
Budget experts say the large deficits are the product of many forces: stimulus, bailout and prescription drug packages that weren't paid for; Bush-era tax cuts; and a slumping economy.
Even so, another poll released by CBS News last week found that 51 percent believed the U.S. should not be involved in Afghanistan – an increase of 12 percentage points from a similar poll in fall 2009.
“All these things are driving a much more animated (internal) discussion about where we go from here,” said an Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Top military officials say it is a bad time to start a rapid withdrawal. The Taliban was routed last year from key areas in its heartland in southern Afghanistan, and has been weakened by raids targeting mid-level commanders, they say. But the officials describe the territorial gains as fragile and reversible.
Taliban fighters have struck back in recent weeks in southern districts such as Sangin, where Marines last year suffered some of their highest casualty rates of the war. They have also launched a campaign of assassinations against Afghan officials, a tactic to disrupt efforts to provide stability and solid public services in areas wrested from Taliban control.
Gates, on a recent trip to Afghanistan, made the case for a minimal withdrawal of combat troops in the near future, saying he would prefer to pull out support personnel while leaving “shooters” in place.
His likely successor is Leon E. Panetta, who was budget director in the Clinton administration and may be more attuned to the war's costs. Vice President Joe Biden has made clear that he prefers a small-scale force focused more on routing terrorists than stabilizing Afghanistan.
“Those in the White House who make the argument for a faster acceleration (of troop withdrawal) are in a little bit stronger position than if Gates or Petraeus were staying another six or 12 months,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan and now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Gates and Petraeus have been hugely influential, Barno said. “It will take some time for their successors to get established and exercise that kind of influence.”
(Los Angeles Times staff writer Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.)
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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