Democratic senators press Obama on Afghanistan pullout

Nearly half the Senate Democratic Conference, including 10 committee chairmen, sent a letter to President Obama pressing him to shift his strategy in Afghanistan and begin a major drawdown of troops.

Those 24 senators were joined by one Independent and two members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, all of them urging the president to make significant policy changes as Obama’s self-imposed July deadline for a troop drawdown approaches.

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“We write to express our strong support for a shift in strategy and the beginning of a sizable and sustained reduction of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, beginning in July 2011,” the lawmakers wrote Wednesday.

“There are those who argue that rather than reduce our forces, we should maintain a significant number of troops in order to support a lengthy counterinsurgency and nation-building effort. This is misguided,” they argued.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the second- and third-ranking members of the leadership, signed the letter. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not.

The 27 signatories include a mix of liberals and centrists as well as Republicans Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.). Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats, also signed on. The centrists who support it include Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.).

At a time of massive budget debts and angry partisan fights over spending cuts, Democrats senators are getting tired of spending $2 billion a week on a conflict that has shown mixed results.

That’s to say nothing of what they feel regarding the more painful cost of 1,500-plus American fatalities and nearly 12,000 service members wounded.

Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Lee were the leaders behind the letter. “Within the administration they’re having a robust policy debate, and I think it’s important they know that a significant number of senators weighed in on this,” Udall told The Hill.

Udall said senators would begin “contacting all of our friends” within the administration to influence their decisionmaking process.

Lee’s leading role in the letter-writing effort and the support of Paul — two of the Senate’s most ardent conservatives — show that many Tea Party voters have come to see Afghanistan as a wasteful exercise in nation-building.

The lawmakers appeared to call for a bigger withdrawal than that advocated by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who did not sign the letter.

Levin has recommended withdrawing 15,000 of the 100,000 American troops serving by the end of this year.

Obama announced he would begin pulling troops out of Afghanistan beginning in July but has not said how many he will draw down.

White House officials have signaled that Obama will make that decision soon and the size of the withdrawal will depend on conditions on the ground.

A spokeswoman for the National Security Council, asked about the letter, said White House press secretary Jay Carney has addressed the pending withdrawal decision several times in recent weeks.

Carney told reporters last week that Obama met with national security advisers to discuss the security situation and would weigh the recommendations of the secretary of defense and the chief general of international forces.

Carney said “it will be a real drawdown but it will depend on conditions on the ground.”

Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recommended a modest reduction of forces, but some of the president’s national security advisers see an opportunity to dramatically scale down U.S. military involvement after the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The senators argued the nation’s military goals of destroying al Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan and removing the Taliban government have largely been met.

“Those original goals have been largely met and today, as CIA Director Leon Panetta noted last June, ‘I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less’ al Qaeda members remaining in Afghanistan,” they wrote.

“We will never be able to secure and police every town and village in Afghanistan. Nor will we be able to build Afghanistan from the ground up into a Western-style democracy,” they added.

Democrats have been under strong political pressure from Republicans to sustain and even augment the military intervention in Afghanistan.

After former President George W. Bush saw good results in Iraq after surging troop numbers, Obama was under pressure to do the same to stabilize Afghanistan. He responded in 2009 by sending an additional 30,000 troops to Kandahar, Paktika and other Afghan provinces.

But now there is wavering support for continuing an open-ended muscular military presence in the region.

Paul Kawika Martin, political director of Peace Action, a group that helped organize support for the letter, said Obama could face political repercussions in 2012 if he fails to respond.

“In 2012, voters will want to see that President Obama is ending the war in Afghanistan by quickly bringing troops home in very large numbers,” Martin said in a statement. 

Most of the Republicans hoping to challenge Obama next year are also pushing for a rapid troop withdrawal.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said at a GOP presidential debate Monday that “it’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can.”

This story was originally posted at 4 p.m. and updated at 8:25 p.m.

John T. Bennett contributed to this report.