Dems to press for end to Afghan war during defense debate

House Democrats intend to pepper floor debate on a 2012 Pentagon spending measure with amendments and discussions about substantially reducing U.S. troops in Afghanistan – or withdrawing them completely.

Fueled by the commando raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 1, Democrats are looking for a way to bring an end to the nearly decade-old Afghanistan conflict. Numerous public opinion polls show most Americans have soured on the Afghanistan conflict.

Their latest move will come over the next several days as the House debates 2012 defense authorization legislation. Democrats have filed a handful of amendments aimed at removing American forces from Afghanistan.

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The chamber is expected to begin work on the legislation Tuesday evening, with a final vote coming later in the week.

Four members have prepared an amendment that would stipulate funds for military actions in Afghanistan could only be used for “counterterrorism operations” like taking out “terrorist cells” and training indigenous security forces. That amendment is sponsored by Democratic Rep. John Garamendi (Calif.), with fellow Democrats Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), Peter Welch (Vt.), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.) and Hansen Clarke (Mich.) signing on as co-sponsors.

Welch and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) have filed another amendment that would require the Pentagon to begin a “safe, responsible and phased withdrawal of units and members of the Army and Marine Corps deployed in Afghanistan.” It would, however, allow U.S. officials to keep in place a small number of troops and contractors to “conduct small, targeted counterterrorism operations.”

That amendment also would require the removal of all “military contractors operating in Afghanistan” under funds from the Pentagon.  If included in the enacted version of a 2012 Defense authorization bill, it would require the Pentagon to send Congress a complete withdrawal plan within 60 days.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) has filed an amendment with the House Rules Committee that would mandate the executive branch craft plans for an “accelerated transition of military operations to Afghan authorities” and for talks for a political solution to the Afghanistan conflict. It also would require a new National Intelligence Estimate examining al Qaeda.

Rep. Shelia Jackson-Lee (D-Calif.) has filed an amendment to require a substantial U.S. withdrawal.

And Rep. Keith Ellison’s (D-Minn.) amendment would seek an update from the Defense secretary about the American strategy in Afghanistan post-bin Laden.

The House panel also wrote into the legislation language reiterating that the U.S. is at war with al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Democrats strongly oppose the language, and charge the GOP is using the wording as a tool in Washington’s years-old debate over terrorism detainee policy.

The White House also opposes that part of the authorization bill, and issued a warning Tuesday afternoon that if the language reaches President Obama’s desk, his top national security aides would advise he veto the entire bill.

Included in that same “statement of administration policy” on the Defense legislation is another veto threat of a HASC-passed provision that would require the Pentagon to start a competition to build the power plant for the F-35 fighter if certain upgrades are made to the primary engine.

The Pentagon and two administrations have sought to kill a congressionally created second F-35 engine program, arguing it is too pricey and not operationally necessary. Alternate engine proponents say it will save tens of billions down the road and provide an operational back up should the first engine break down.

The White House also announced it would consider vetoing a 2012 Defense authorization measure than includes HASC’s restrictions on implementing a nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.

The provision, the White House statement said, would place “onerous conditions on the administration’s ability to implement the treaty, as well as to retire, dismantle, or eliminate non-deployed nuclear weapons.” 

The White House also opposes a provision in the House panel’s bill that would seek to slow a required certification needed before the military’s ban on openly gay service members can be formally repealed. But the White House is not threatening a veto over the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy language.