Out-of-Afghanistan Rumblings on The Hill
When they won control of Congress in November, Democrats pressed their case to withdraw troops from Iraq and refocus on Afghanistan, but some are growing impatient with U.S. operations in Afghanistan as well.
A few congressional Democrats go so far as suggesting that the Pentagon should pull out of Afghanistan now, while others say that troop withdrawal will be addressed after the military is out of Iraq.
Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a senior defense authorizer, wants the U.S. out of Afghanistan immediately, calling operations there "futile" in trying to effect political change in a country with a tangled history.
Most other Democrats want to focus on Afghanistan, with the goal of withdrawing the military down the road after the country is stabilized and any new Taliban resurgence quashed.
With a few exceptions, congressional Democrats no longer show any hesitation about withdrawing the military from Iraq. But they are more circumspect about Afghanistan, saying that the Bush administration let the situation worsen by shifting attention onto a protracted conflict in Iraq.
"We should have never gone to Iraq, because we would have been out of Afghanistan [by now]," Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) said in a brief interview.
Murtha, the chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee and a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq, said that by September, when he takes up the fiscal 2008 war supplemental funding, he would have a better sense of how to handle Afghanistan.
Yet making the argument that the U.S. needs to get out of Iraq and stay in Afghanistan can be politically challenging. While Democrats regularly note that the war in Iraq has now gone on longer than World War II, the U.S. has been in Afghanistan longer than it has been in Iraq. And arguments that Iraqis need to take control of their own country can be applied to Afghanistan as well.
The Afghanistan effort enjoys much more support among the American public, and Democratic leaders have sought to burnish their homeland security credentials by presenting an unwavering backing of the war there.
Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have stressed over the past several months that the U.S. should refocus on stabilizing Afghanistan and capturing Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"The Taliban played a role in the 9/11 attacks by providing a safe haven for bin Laden," said Drew Hammill, Pelosi's spokesman. "Preventing a successful resurgence by the Taliban is a national security objective of the United States, and our troops will remain in Afghanistan until the objective is achieved."
In contrast to Iraq, Afghans are putting more effort into building up the government and security forces, Hammill added.
Democrats are adamant that they don't want a terrorist training ground in Afghanistan, though al Qaeda and other factions are battling the U.S. in Iraq. Democrats, along with independent military experts, point out that the war in Iraq drove al Qaeda operatives into Iraq, a presence that has intensified throughout the four-year war.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said, "A lot of the problems in Iraq are of our own making. In Afghanistan we still have the continued threat of al Qaeda having a base to operate. We have to continue to be there."
"[The American people] are prepared to take losses, if they make sense. You don't hear people saying, 'We need to get out of Afghanistan.' People know the difference," said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).
Withdrawing now from Afghanistan would be a big mistake, said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "The country is in trouble, clearly we have not accomplished our mission there," she said.
War violence is common in Afghanistan. One of the deadliest insurgent attacks since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 killed 24 people occurred earlier this month when a bus exploded in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. Out of the 24 victims, 22 were police academy instructors on their way to work. About 300 Afghan police officers have been killed in the past three months, making 2007 the worst year ever.
Insurgency-related violence has killed more than 2,400 people in Afghanistan this year, according to a count by the Associated Press based on official figures.
Meanwhile, the narcotics trade has been on the rise, with Afghanistan producing the vast majority of the world's opiates as more Afghans resort to growing poppy as a means of survival.
About 25,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Afghanistan. Between Oct. 1, 2001, and June 2, 2007, 394 members of the military died as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, according to Pentagon casualty data.
"We are finished there, militarily speaking," said Abercrombie, the chairman of the Air and Land Armed Services subcommittee.
"There is no useful purpose for our troops there," Abercrombie stated in a recent interview. "The military should withdraw now," he said, though he stressed that the U.S. could keep "isolated pockets" of special operators.
Instead of using the military to effect political change, the U.S. should have a complete diplomatic re-engagement in the region, "with an understanding that our role there should change," Abercrombie added.
Murtha stressed that NATO forces should take a bigger role in Afghanistan. So far, the U.S. military has been the leading presence.
"I have not made the recommendation yet on withdrawing the troops from Afghanistan," said Murtha. "Every commander I talk to still thinks that we have a chance."
But Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a staunch opponent of the war in Iraq, said that it is time for the U.S. military to start leaving Afghanistan and the Middle East altogether.
"We are not securing America by being there," she pressed. "The longer we are there, the more plots start growing in our country."
Watson, who supported the war in Afghanistan, said that the military ought "to start leaving Afghanistan" and that the U.S. should allow Afghan officials to "formulate and run their own government."
The anti-war grassroots movement has generally been quiet about Afghanistan as it has committed most, if not all, of its attention on Iraq.
Code Pink Women for Peace spokeswoman Dana Balicki said that her organization would like to see soldiers withdraw from Afghanistan.
"The combat forces should be replaced by international peacekeeping forces," she said. "We should push for peace talks in the area with all groups that have power."
MoveOn.org did not respond to repeated attempts for comment on the issue.
Meanwhile, several anti-war members, including Reps. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), stress that any troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the military's first leaving Iraq.
"I'd like to get out of Iraq first and look at Afghanistan and if it does not work ... we should be impatient," Woolsey said, adding that she is not prepared to give a timeline for withdrawal. "There was a reason [for being] there, but now we really need to reassess what we are accomplishing. It depends on what our mission is in Afghanistan; if our mission is to find Osama bin Laden, that is one thing."
Bin Laden is believed to be in Pakistan, hiding along the border with Afghanistan. A decision to leave Afghanistan before bid Laden is caught or killed would be seen by some as abandoning the U.S. effort to combat terrorism.
Yet Kucinich, a 2008 presidential candidate, said that withdrawal from Iraq would open a new policy direction in Afghanistan.
"Once we show that we can handle a successful resolution of withdrawing troops from Iraq, it will be easier to shift direction in Afghanistan," said Kucinich. "There is a sequence of events ... get out of Iraq and then we must focus on getting out of Afghanistan."
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is the only member of Congress who voted against the war in Afghanistan. Lee declined to comment for this article.
Elana Schor contributed to this article.
© 2007 The Hill