Reporting from Washington — Congressional opponents of the war in Afghanistan forced a debate Wednesday on the floor of the House of Representatives on a resolution to bring U.S. forces home and end the 8-year-old conflict.
The measure ended up losing, 356 to 65, a margin that had been expected. Nonetheless, antiwar lawmakers welcomed the debate as a chance to express pent-up frustration with the continued troop buildup in Afghanistan, and to express their view that the original mission of U.S. forces, defeating Al Qaeda, had been lost.
The debate took place as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, on a visit to Afghanistan, suggested that a drawdown of U.S. forces could begin before July 2011, the date the Obama administration said a U.S. troop buildup would peak and forces would begin to withdraw.
Though acknowledging that the withdrawal could begin sooner, Gates emphasized that any reduction "would have to be conditions-based."
Defense officials played down Gates' remarks, saying he was not announcing a new goal but underscoring the administration's intention to hand over control to Afghan security forces as soon as they are ready.
During the House debate, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) stressed that President Obama's strategy includes a "promised drawdown" and noted Gates' comments that the withdrawal could come earlier than July 2011.
"I want the U.S. military out of Afghanistan at the earliest reasonable date. But accelerating the Obama administration's carefully calibrated timetable could take grievous risks with our national security," Harman said.
The resolution was sponsored by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), a former presidential candidate, and would force Obama to withdraw U.S. forces within 30 days of passage by the House and Senate.
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), wearing a tie festooned with peace symbols, called the Afghanistan war a "foreign occupation" that is unconstitutional.
Five Republicans joined 60 Democrats in supporting the measure to force a troop withdrawal.
Opposing the resolution were 189 Democrats and 167 Republicans.
"The country is totally bankrupt and we are spending trillions of dollars on these useless wars," said Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a libertarian and also a former presidential candidate.
"History shows all empires end because they expand too far and bankrupt the country, just as the Soviet system came down."
Republican supporters of the war repeatedly questioned why the sponsors of the resolution were forcing a debate before giving the Obama administration a chance to show its new strategy is working.
"Why second-guess the commander in chief and his commanders so soon after the announcement of a new strategy?" said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita). Afghanistan, he said, "was the epicenter of where Al Qaeda planned and launched the 9/11 attacks against innocent Americans."
Some opponents said the resolution, if passed, would endanger troops by forcing a premature retreat.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), who opposed Kucinich's motion, rose to support the debate.
"This is a discussion about the decision to send our forces into harm's way," Berman said.
"It is worthy of a serious debate. There is nothing wrong with that."
Some lawmakers who defended the debate said they also support White House efforts to reverse what House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called the Bush administration's neglect of the war.
"Passing this resolution would show we have learned the wrong lessons from those years of relative neglect," Hoyer said.
"Abandoning Afghanistan just when a new strategy and new leadership has begun to bear fruit, I think, would be a mistake."
Janet Hook in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.