Early on in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing about Afghanistan today, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink interrupted a discussion about whether the United States should maintain current troop levels or draw down to a smaller force focused on counter-terrorism operations. “There is another opinion—just leave,” she said.
Senator John Kerry (D-MA), the committee’s chairman, quickly gaveled the hearing into a brief recess, and Benjamin left the room. Had she stuck around, she might have been surprised to hear the number-two Democrat in the Senate essentially echo her position.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Democratic Party whip, asked by far the hearing’s most important question and one of the most pointed by a Democratic leader to date: “If you believe that resolution of this conflict by military means is highly unlikely and not a realistic basis for US policy, how can we send one more American soldier to fight and die in Afghanistan?” he said.
Durbin noted that “Afghanistan has been a graveyard of empires,” and repeatedly invoked the human cost borne by American soldiers. “We are now in a very sterile conversation about diplomacy and foreign policy,” he said. “The reality is they’re fighting and dying over there. And the question is—how long will we keep sending them?”
Aside from Durbin, other senators who attended the hearing—both Republican and Democrat—voiced serious concerns about extended commitments to Afghanistan. Not one openly called for staying the current course.
Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) cited President Obama’s recent $100 billion budget request for fighting the war in fiscal year 2012, along with a strategy that “appears to be devoted to remaking the economic, political, and security culture of that country,” and said that “it is exceedingly difficult to conclude that our vast expenditures in Afghanistan represent a rational allocation of our military and financial assets.”
Lugar’s concerns were echoed by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who said plainly that “I’ve been supportive of the administration so far, but I have a real hard time as we move forward.” Menendez wondered aloud whether there was “an amount of money or plan that can actually work here.”
The only other Republican to speak, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), also raised questions about the amount of money being spent. “I think the one thing that would stun the American people on the ground in Afghanistan, is how much we are investing in this country, and what we are investing in,” he said.
President Obama will soon decide whether the July drawdown of troops will be substantial or simply a matter of optics. The hearing’s witnesses divided into two camps. Ann Marie Slaughter, late of the Obama administration, and Ronald E. Neumann, who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005–07, both advocated for extended American investment in the country.
Slaughter said she envisions a “secure, stable, and self-reliant” Afghanistan, despite the continued elusiveness of anything resembling that situation. “It may seem like an impossible job,” Slaughter testified. “But the sooner we embark on it, the better the chances that we can get it done.”
The Council on Foreign Relation’s Richard Haass, on the other hand, called for the end of combat operations against the Taliban, though not a total withdrawal—he wanted a small number of US troops to remain in the country, performing counter-terrorism operations.
“I do not believe…a quote-unquote ‘self-reliant Afghanistan’ is a reasonable goal,” Haass said. “I think that is an open-ended commitment for the United States, militarily and economically, and I do not believe that that can be strategically defended, given the costs and given the opportunity costs; given all else we need to worry about in the world and given all else we need to worry about here at home.”
Nobody yet knows to what degree President Obama will withdraw troops from Afghanistan this summer, but it is clear he’s gaining cover on Capitol Hill for substantial action.
Rep. Barney Frank told Think Progress’s Faiz Shakir he now favors withdrawal. “People say, well, America can't look like it was driven out with the mission not accomplished. We went there to get Osama bin Laden!” The Atlantic’s Elspeth Reeve counted seven other House Democrats who spoke up in favor of reconsidering current troop levels in the wake of bin Laden’s death,
Even before bin Laden was killed, Obama may have been considering a serious drawdown. The Atlantic's Yochi Dreazen reports that Obama was already moving away from the idea of a token drawdown, and “with bin Laden now out of the picture, the White House may feel even freer to order a larger drawdown than most in the military would prefer.”
Lugar’s criticism aside, Republicans aren’t likely to support a perceived retreat. House speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has already said bin Laden’s death “makes our engagement in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan more important not less.” But with eroding Congressional support and polls showing the public wants out of Afghanistan even if it’s not stable, that could be a tough position to hold.