Speedy Afghan exit draws more support

By:  Kyung M. Song, Seattle Times
Source: The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell on Tuesday joined two dozen Senate colleagues in calling for a course shift in Afghanistan, urging President Obama to begin a "sizable and sustained" military pullout from the decadelong war.

The two Washington state Democrats added their names to a letter circulated by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to pressure the administration to call combat troops home in significant numbers beginning next month.

The effort is one sign that some members of Congress are turning slowly, but inexorably, against the war. That shift has been fueled in part by the conflict's mounting human and financial toll. The killing of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden six weeks ago by U.S. commandos gave the issue renewed urgency.

The House in recent months has held two votes on Afghanistan, including a failed 93-321 vote in March to end the war. The chamber in May narrowly rejected an amendment calling for a swift drawdown of the 100,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan.

In the March vote, Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, and Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, were the only members of Washington's House delegation to vote for removing U.S. forces. But they were joined in May by the three other Washington Democrats — Reps. Norm Dicks of Bremerton, Rick Larsen of Lake Stevens and Adam Smith of Tacoma — on the failed bid to scale down the war more quickly.

Three Washington Republicans — Reps. Dave Reichert of Auburn, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Vancouver and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane — voted against a quicker drawdown. Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco did not vote.

In contrast, the House and the Senate less than a year ago rejected a proposal to require Obama to submit even a timetable for withdrawal. Cantwell and Murray were among only 18 senators who voted to force a schedule for pullout.

Dicks, top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee and an ardent advocate for the Pentagon, recently declared it's time for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan. Dicks' office has portrayed that as his most significant anti-war shift in two decades.

Smith, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, opposes ending the war immediately. However, his spokeswoman, Libby Denkmann, noted that Smith consistently has called for the United States to leave "as soon as responsibly possible."

Merkley's letter, written with Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, had gathered 26 signatures by Tuesday evening.

Obama has said he intends to begin an initial withdrawal of troops in July, but he hasn't announced how many and how quickly the troops would leave. Foreign forces are supposed to be out of Afghanistan by end of 2014, but some in Congress are losing patience.

The increasing skepticism on Capitol Hill about Americans' role in the Afghan conflict is belated but welcome, said Paul Kawika Martin, political director of Peace Action, a Maryland-based group that opposes the war.

"It shows we have a military that's properly run by Congress and the president," he said.

Martin said he believes the tide may be on the verge of turning, at least in the House, against a war that costs roughly $10 billion a month. In March, eight Republicans were among the 93 House members who supported removing U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Martin, of Peace Action, credits several members of Congress for swaying the debate against the war. They include Merkley, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

Merkley's letter says the nation has strayed from its original rationale for the war, which was to wipe out al-Qaida. Some experts say the terrorist network has lost many of its leaders and may be down to fewer than 100 members in Afghanistan. But, the letter asserts, the war has devolved into tribal and regional conflicts best left to the Afghans.

The war's human toll and steep financial tab also are growing concerns. On Wednesday, at a hearing on the Pentagon's fiscal 2012 budget, Murray plans to ask outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the hidden costs of the Afghan war, including long-term care for wounded veterans.