WASHINGTON — In a mostly lazy post-Memorial Day workweek and amid the fervor over a wait-time scandal at the nation’s Veterans Affairs clinics, rather important news slipped by Congress relatively quietly this week: President Obama’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2016.
Obama announced Tuesday that the majority of American forces in Afghanistan would exit the country by the end of the year, with a force of 9,800 left behind to provide training and logistical support for troops there. Troop levels would cut in half by the end of 2015 and zero out entirely by the end of 2016 (except for a small embassy presence similar to in other countries), ending the longest military conflict in American history.
Only one member of the Minnesota delegation, Rep. Keith Ellison, put out a statement after Obama made his announcement. When House members returned for work on Wednesday afternoon (the Senate is out on recess), there was a flurry of news relating to the V.A. scandal, but little reaction to Afghanistan.
There seems to be three main camps when it comes to Obama’s announcement, typified by the Minnesota delegation. Most Republicans, while opposing Obama’s foreign policy generally, are more concerned with his setting an end date than the troop levels themselves; Democratic leadership generally supports the move; and strident anti-war liberals say it’s still unwise to let the conflict linger.
Bachmann: Timetable strategy ‘perplexing’
Rep. Michele Bachmann visited Afghanistan over the weekend to meet with officials and thank troops on her last Memorial Day in office. Obama’s troop level proposal, she said Thursday, is “reality-based,” but she rejected the idea of setting a total withdrawal date like he has.
“I think the 9,800 is a little skinny on the number of what we needed, but still, I think within the realm of acceptable. A little low, but acceptable,” she said. “What I think is perplexing is that the president has this weird idea that he can make a pronouncement and essentially say the war will end on Dec. 31, 2014. Wars don’t begin and end because the president says, ‘today the war is going to begin, today the war is going to end.’ ”
In Afghanistan, Bachmann met with the head of American forces, Gen. James Dunford, Ambassador James Cunningham, the Afghan foreign minister and other security and intelligence officials, according to her office. She said it’s “completely possible” for the country to successfully implement the political and military reforms it needs to be viable, though she worries a timeline for fully withdrawing U.S. troops is “setting the next Afghan government and the Afghan army up for failure.”
“I think we can safely say that it’s highly unlikely that his rosy predictions for 2016 and 5,000 will come to pass,” Bachmann said.
Still, she said a gradual drawdown is better than what happened in Iraq in 2011, where nearly 40,000 U.S. troops left the country in a matter of months. The country has, by all counts, backslid badly since then.
“We came out, precipitously, out of Iraq, it’s very analogous to the discussion we’re having right now about Afghanistan,” Rep. John Kline said on WCCO radio on Tuesday.
Kline visited Afghanistan on trip with House Speaker John Boehner in April. Kline said the 9,800 troop number is “about where we ought to be,” but he said the timetable for pulling those troops out shouldn’t be set in stone.
“How fast you can come down from there will still be a matter of some discussion that Congress needs to be involved in with this administration,” he said. “I would hate to think that you bring it down so precipitously that you lose the ground that you’ve gained.”
For his part, Boehner said, he was “pleased” with Obama’s decision, but said any further troop levels should be made in conjunction with commanders on the ground.
“I look forward to hearing more specifics on how the proposed troop number will adequately cover the defined missions as well as provide appropriate force protection for our military and civilian personnel,” he said in a statement.
Ellison: I don’t think 9,000 soliders is ‘out’
Democratic leadership was generally pleased with the announcement. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called it “a path forward to fulfill [Obama’s] core promise: to enhance the security of the American people, to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly, and to bring us closer to the day when all of our troops can come safely home.” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said it was a “responsible plan to bring our troops home by 2016.”
Most Democrats, like most Republicans, had little to say after the announcement. But anti-war liberals, led by Rep. Keith Ellison’s Progressive Caucus, said the decision doesn’t go far enough. He notes: “I don’t think 9,000 soldiers is ‘out.’ ”
“We should maintain a relationship, from a diplomatic and development standpoint, with Afghanistan,” he said. “But in terms of military presence, we should end that. Even if it’s what some might call a token force, it’s still a force.”
Like Republicans, the CPC said Obama should consult with Congress before making final troop announcements. Of course, they want something that isn’t likely to happen.
“We urge the Congressional leadership in the House and Senate to schedule a vote on [ending] the war in Afghanistan as soon as possible,” Ellison and CPC co-chair Rep. Raul Grijalva said in their statement.
There were a couple of other groups of lawmakers to speak out about the decision, including a trio of hawk-ish Senate Republicans who blasted the move. But for the most part, lawmakers let the issue slip by with little fanfare.
But Ellison said that doesn’t mean the most passionate among them have given up the cause.
“I think a lot of people might be, ‘all we can get,’ ” Ellison said. “But in my view, you should never stop demanding what’s right. Nine-thousand people, that’s 9,000 Americans who are vulnerable to attack, 9,000 people who can be the focal point of an anti-American type of campaign, 9,000 people subject to never coming home again.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry