McCain: Early Afghan exit an option because of war's mishandling

The mishandling of the war in Afghanistan by the Obama administration has made it so dangerous that the U.S. should consider withdrawing all troops from the country early, according to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other lawmakers.

“I think all options ought to be considered, including whether we have to just withdraw early, rather than have a continued bloodletting that won’t succeed,” McCain said Wednesday. 

His comments came two days after House Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) called for an immediate withdrawal of American forces from the country. 

“I think we should remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can,” Young said in an interview Monday with the Tampa Bay Times. “I just think we’re killing kids that don’t need to die.” 

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The remarks from the two lawmakers, who have been hawkish on Afghanistan, come as the number of “insider” attacks by Afghan troops against U.S. and NATO forces steadily grows. Concerns about the attacks led NATO to suspend most joint operations with Afghan troops this week. 

McCain, who led the charge on Capitol Hill against the White House’s deadline for removing all troops from Afghanistan by 2014, argues that the rise of the rate of attacks is directly tied to the administration’s decision to pull troops too quickly from the country. 

“Any rational viewer that has any knowledge of the military knows that the whole program has to be re-evaluated, because the process that they said would lead to that withdrawal has been an abject and total failure,” he said.

While McCain still argues the best U.S. policy for Afghanistan would be to keep a U.S. presence in the country to fight the Taliban for years, he says leaving early should now be an option, given the situation on the ground — which he blames squarely on Obama.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he disagreed with McCain on that point, arguing there was no scenario he envisioned where the U.S. should leave early.

Like McCain, he also called for a wholesale re-drafting of the administration’s war policy, noting that Afghanistan is already “beginning to slip away” in the wave of insider attacks and with the Taliban looking to make a final stand before coalition forces leave in 2014. 

“We don’t have a vision, and leading from behind is not an [acceptable] option,” Graham said regarding the administration’s foreign-policy strategy in Afghanistan. 

Graham said that an accelerated withdrawal would do more harm than good for a postwar Afghanistan and for U.S. national security. 

“What happens when you leave? Tell me a scenario where we’re safer by pulling the plug on Afghanistan,” Graham told reporters Wednesday. “I can’t envision a scenario that doesn’t lead to holy hell … and I can’t envision a scenario where another 9/11 doesn’t come about.”

The new questioning of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan stems from a rapid rise in the number of “insider attacks,” where Afghan soldiers and police officers have turned their weapons on friendly NATO troops. This year 51 NATO service members, a majority of them American, have been killed in such attacks.

That situation formed part of the rationale behind the decision on Monday to suspend most joint operations between NATO and Afghan forces below the battalion level.

The suspensions raise questions about the U.S. exit strategy, in which NATO forces are supposed to train Afghan troops to take over security control in 2014.

Obama and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai discussed the rising number of insider attacks in a video conference Wednesday, the White House said. 

The two leaders discussed efforts to stem the attacks as well as the importance of encouraging restraint and non-violence in “reaction to inflammatory materials,” a reference to cartoons and videos that have surfaced in recent weeks that have mocked or criticized Islam with depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.

At his daily briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney reiterated that U.S. combat troops would all be out of Afghanistan in 2014. 

Carney also argued the White House had inherited an “adrift” war strategy for Afghanistan and had “homed in on what the proper objectives should be.” Carney said it remained in the U.S. interest to remove troops from Afghanistan in 2014. 

The Afghan war has not been a major issue in the presidential race between Obama and Mitt Romney, though the Republican nominee criticized Obama for withdrawing “surge” troops too quickly from Afghanistan. Romney has argued Obama’s timetable signaled to the Taliban when the U.S. would leave the battlefield, although last week he backed the 2014 exit date.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the administration “always ought to be evaluating our [Afghan] policy,” given the fluid nature of the war. 

But Levin said the debate over the future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan shouldn’t be on how late or soon American forces will be coming home. The main question, to Levin, is whether the U.S. should keep drawing down its forces or implement a strategic pause on those efforts. 

“That’s the issue that the administration is going to be facing,” he said.

— Posted at 1:34 p.m. and updated at 8:43 p.m.