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.