By John T. Bennett - 06/04/11 06:38 PM EDT
Reports surfaced Saturday that U.S. forces killed a senior al Qaeda commander, handing President Obama another battlefield victory ahead of a major strategy review.
Ilyas Kashmiri -- considered as on the short list to replace Osama bin Laden -- was taken out by a U.S. missile launched from an unmanned aircraft, the Associated Press reported, citing al Qaeda and Pakistani officials.
It would also allow President Obama to place another al Qaeda scalp on his belt.
When combined with the bin Laden killing, eliminating Kashmiri via a remotely piloted drone could give new fuel to the increasing number of lawmakers in both parties and military experts who say a smaller -- but lethally tailored -- U.S. force in Afghanistan would suffice.
The Obama administration will begin its latest Afghanistan strategy review in coming weeks as Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. and NATO commander there, readies options for pulling out some American forces this year.
That withdrawal review comes amid declining support for the war amongst U.S. lawmakers and citizens of all political stripes.
A March poll showed the American public thinks the conflict is no longer worth it -- by a 2-to-1 margin.
The Washington Post-ABC News poll revealed that only 31 percent of those surveyed said the war has been worth fighting, the lowest level of support since the survey started asking the question in 2007. Sixty-four percent opined that it is not worth fighting.
A more recent Post-ABC News poll found only half of Republican voters believe the war is worth continuing.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Saturday that the Obama administration cannot simply ignore the dwindling congressional and public support for the decade-old conflict.
Even Republican lawmakers and voters, who have staunchly supported the operations since it was started after 9/11, are beginning call for at least a reduced U.S. military footprint and a revised tactical approach -- especially given its massive costs.
Republican House members joined Democrats last week in voting in favor of an amendment to a Defense Department spending bill that would have forced a complete U.S. withdrawal. It failed by only 11 votes.
The Afghanistan war has stretched nearly 10 years and cost $443 billion through fiscal 2010, according to a March Congressional Research Service report.
What’s more, Washington is on pace to spend $113 billion on the Afghanistan mission this fiscal year, and has requested $107 billion for fiscal 2012
That has even typically hawkish House GOP members calling for changes -- and the Kashmiri and bin Laden strikes sound close to what they have in mind.
“Without measurable progress to show, the case for sustained involvement in Afghanistan, particularly at current troop levels, is becoming harder to make,” Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) wrote in a Friday op-ed piece. “There are certainly advancements to build upon, but there is no telling how much longer support will last, including their own, to continue the mission as it stands now.”
The former Marine who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan said “a more favorable strategy” might be to scuttle the large ground force the military now has there.
Hunter floated the idea of basing the mission there on a “smaller number of specialized personnel -- special operators, in particular.”
The sinking mood on Capitol Hill and across the nation for the war makes crafting the partial withdrawal plan more tricky.
But, overall, “the president actually is in a good position politically,” according to James Lindsay, senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“His draw down plan will not satisfy all Democrats, but he will be almost certainly moving in their direction and taking the edge off their criticism,” Lindsay wrote Friday in a CFR blog entry. “Meanwhile, Republicans are in a bind. They could applaud Obama’s plan, which would make the White House happy. Or they could criticize a president who is following public opinion, thereby giving voters another reason besides Medicare to believe that Republicans aren’t listening to them.”