Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, left, and John S. McCain, center, along… (MOHAMMAD ISMAIL, REUTERS )
Reporting from Washington — Two key Republican senators visiting Afghanistan said Sunday that many Afghans may see President Obama's plans to pull 33,000 American troops out of the country as a prelude to a full-fledged U.S. military withdrawal, a perception the lawmakers argued could undercut the decade-long effort to combat terrorists in the region.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking in the capital, Kabul, described Obama's decision to reduce American forces from their current level of just more than 100,000 troops as "an unnecessary risk" that would deprive the U.S. military of the "troops that are needed for a second fighting season."
Some U.S. allies with troops in Afghanistan already have followed suit by announcing withdrawals of their own, McCain said. But "most important, we're told in the villages that the Afghans are now wondering if we're leaving or not," he said on CNN's "State of the Union" news show, "and that can undermine the whole effort and sacrifices that have been made ever since this important surge."
The Obama administration sent an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan in late 2009 to combat the Taliban in its strongholds in the south and other areas. On June 22, the president announced that 10,000 troops would return by year's end and the remaining additional forces would be out by September 2012.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), like McCain a decorated veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, echoed the concerns.
"The difference between transitioning to Afghan control in a reasoned way and withdrawing from the fight as Americans is hugely important," Graham said on "Fox News Sunday." "The perception that I'm finding on the ground is that the announcement by the president is more of a withdrawal than it is transition. And that has to be corrected or it could jeopardize our whole operations."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) accompanied Graham and McCain on the trip. The three held a joint news conference in Kabul.
In ordering the drawdown, Obama has noted the successes in the last two years in Afghanistan and cited the killing in May of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. At the same time, the president has acknowledged that the U.S. military would be fighting in Afghanistan for at least an additional three years and that "huge challenges remain."
McCain said Sunday that he saw "no signs whatsoever" that the Taliban was ready to talk peace.
The withdrawal, which is scheduled to begin this month, would leave the U.S. with about 68,000 troops in Afghanistan by the fall of 2012. That is a faster timetable than Obama's military commanders had sought and has raised questions about whether those numbers would be enough to accomplish American objectives.
Obama's move also reflected the political realities of a costly war at a time when the domestic economy and government budget pressures are weighing heavily on the administration and the American public.