...and break ranks over Afghan plan

Greg Nash

Senate Democrats are breaking ranks with the White House over President Obama’s plan to leave U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2016.

Several are objecting to the timeline, arguing it does not get soldiers out of harm’s way fast enough, and are questioning why the president abandoned his promise to end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of the year.

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“First off, the commitment was to be out by 2014,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who is in the midst of a tough reelection battle. “2014 is here, we should be out.

“We have no agreement with Afghanistan on what our troops should be doing. I think it is time to come home and let them govern their country.”

While not all Senate Democrats are against Obama’s plan, many of them are leery of letting Americans risk their lives in Afghanistan for another two and a half years.

Doubts about the mission have been heightened by Obama’s decision to trade five members of the Taliban’s senior leadership for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was a prisoner of war for five years. The deal has led some lawmakers to question whether fighting the insurgency beyond this year is worth American lives.

“Since the president says we’ll leave no one behind, bring everybody home by the end of this year. Leave nobody behind. Get them out of that country,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). “Don’t leave 9,800 people back. Bring them all home. Bring everybody home.”

Manchin said he was worried about the threat posed to troops by the militants freed from Guantánamo.

One of the Taliban leaders, Noorullah Noori, told relatives shortly after arriving in Qatar that he planned to go to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces, according to NBC News.

“We have of the most notorious members who I can guarantee you will be back in operation as quickly as they possibly can. Let’s make sure everyone comes home,” Manchin said.

Senators were shaken by news Tuesday that five members of the U.S. Special Forces were killed in southern Afghanistan by friendly fire in an errant airstrike.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a leading liberal voice, said she wants the troops brought home sooner.

“I’ve long supported a quicker withdrawal of troops,” she said, adding that she would like to see all troops come home by the end of this year.

“I have a different view than some of the Republicans who say if you say when you’re leaving then you’re inviting everybody in. My view is that will send a message to Afghanistan that they have to protect their own people. That’s critical,” she added.

Obama unveiled a new timeline last month that called for the current force of more than 30,000 American troops to be reduced to 9,800 by the end of this year, with the number cut in half again at the end of 2015.

Lawmakers such as Begich view the new plan as Obama backsliding on his commitment on a June 2011 speech to give Afghan authorities full control of security in 2014.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat facing a competitive race in Oregon, said Congress should debate Obama’s proposal.

“Any plan to extend troops after the end of this year, I would like to see the administration put that back to Congress,” Merkley said.

“After more than a dozen years in Afghanistan, I believe it is time to end the longest war in American history and bring our sons and daughters home. If the administration wants to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond this year, Congress should vote,” Merkley said in a May statement.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said he respects the president’s decision as commander in chief but doesn’t necessarily agree with it.

“I just think the exit should be more accelerated,” he said.

Senators noted that Congress has ultimate authority over whether to keep forces in Afghanistan two years beyond the end of 2014 because it controls the power of the purse.

Still, the Senate and House would likely vote to keep forces in Afghanistan because most Republicans do not support an abrupt departure, and a significant number of Democrats will stand behind Obama.

“I’m told that the troops that will be left there are for training and counterinsurgency, I think that’s certainly appropriate,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday when asked about a smaller troop presence persisting through the end of 2016.

“We had hundreds of thousands of troops there in the past, and I think that’s a limited number, and I think that would be just fine,” he said.

The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan peaked at 100,000 in the summer of 2010 and spring of 2011 after Obama ordered an escalation in the troop presence, which stood at 34,000 when he took office.

Since 2001, 2,128 U.S. military personnel have died in Afghanistan, according to iCasualties.org, a group that tracks combat deaths. Dozens more have died from their wounds after returning to hospitals in Germany and the United States.

The fight over withdrawing troops is unusual in that it divides the Democratic Caucus across ideological lines.

Some liberals said they are glad Obama has begun the process of drawing down forces.

“I think the plan right now is a pretty good one,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.). “I think we need to look at this as we move down the road and see what’s going on. The key is the people on the ground right now are training. They’re turning this over to the [Afghan government].”

Republicans say Obama’s timeline serves only to bolster the Taliban.

“I would disagree with announcing the timelines about when you’re going to be withdrawing because it gives the enemy a clear goal about what they need to wait you out until,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).  

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