Afghanistan troop drawdown: why Congress doesn't like it

In a break with prevailing patterns on Capitol Hill, the response to President Obama’s announcement about a troop drawdown in Afghanistan is not playing out strictly along party lines.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama delivered a televised address from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday evening, June 22, on his plan to drawdown US troops in Afghanistan.

President Obama’s plan for a drawdown of 33,000 US troops in Afghanistan by next summer met a tempered response in a war-weary and often gridlocked Congress. But – in a break with prevailing patterns on Capitol Hill – that response is not playing out strictly along party lines.

Some tea party Republicans joined Democrats calling for an even swifter end to the war claiming $2 billion a week and some 1,500 American lives. These newcomers are not committed to the post-9/11 mantra that Congress and the president should set war policy mainly by heeding the advice of US commanders in the field.

From the start, Congress has been reluctant to claim ownership of the US response to the 9/11 attacks. Its Sept. 14, 2001, resolution gave the president authority to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those who planned or aided the 9/11 attacks, passing with one dissenting vote.

Over time, many Democrats turned against President Bush’s strategy in Iraq and were wary of Mr. Obama’s decision in December 2009 to boost US troop strength in Afghanistan by about 30,000. Republicans became Obama’s most reliable votes on national security strategy. They believed that US war policy should closely track the advice of US commanders in the field.

Many Republicans who supported Obama’s surge in Afghanistan say they are disappointed by a new timetable that risks those gains.

“The drawdown of forces described by the President needs to be conducted in a manner that respects the professional judgment of our military commanders, preserves the security gains of the last year and allows for a slower pace of withdrawal if necessary,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in a statement.

“Any reduction of our troop levels in Afghanistan must be conditions-based and supported by our commanders on the ground,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut said that the pace and timing of the withdrawal could “put at risk the substantial gains we have made in Afghanistan.”

By contrast, many Democrats said that the proposed withdrawal isn’t coming swiftly enough. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said that Democrats “will continue to press for a better outcome.”

“We cannot sustain a costly nation-building strategy on a corrupt and ineffective Karzai regime,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D) of Vermont. “Our taxpayers are spending $2 billion a week. All Americans know we need that money here at home.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D) of Missouri, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said that success in Afghanistan “should not be at the expense of thousands of American lives and billions of dollars.” He added, “It is time that we focus on nation building at home.”

By fiscal year 2011, the annual costs of the Afghanistan war accounted for 71 percent of the Pentagon’s war costs. The Iraq war accounted for 29 percent – a reverse of the split at the start of the Obama administration, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The costs especially eroded support among House conservatives, who campaigned during the midterm elections to rein in the costs of government. The killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2 marked a turning point for many conservatives.

“As our national debt grows, the borrowing and importing from our competitors continues, and the drug-related violence on our borders increases, we must evaluate the best use of our resources,” said Rep. John Campbell (R) of California in a May letter to Obama, signed by four Republicans and four Democrats. “The time has come to acknowledge that the threat posed by Afghanistan no longer justifies 100,000-plus troops on the ground.”

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