A Marine guards a compound in Sangin district, Afghanistan. The Obama administration… (Claire Truscott, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration opens an internal debate this week on the size of a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan amid growing doubts in Congress about the cost and purpose of the decade-long war and public pressure to bring it to a rapid end.
President Obama is expected to announce next month the size and pace of a drawdown he promised in December 2009, when he rolled out a strategy that included adding 30,000 U.S. troops in hopes of breaking the Taliban's momentum.
He will reach a decision on the number in deliberations with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Gen. David H. Petraeus, who are known to favor a small initial reduction in the 100,000-strong troops on the ground, and other officials who want to move more quickly.
Obama has given few hints on which way he is leaning, but the ground may be shifting in favor of a much smaller military footprint. Gates is retiring at the end of the month. Petraeus is moving to the CIA, where he will no longer have direct influence over the size of the military force.
And with Washington focused on trimming the federal deficit, the White House is coping with a wave of public frustration over a conflict that is costing $120 billion a year.
Ending the war is one of the few ideas to attract bipartisan backing on Capitol Hill. Last month, 204 House members voted for an amendment that would have required the administration to come up with an accelerated deadline for pulling out of Afghanistan, the strongest expression of disaffection with the war since operations began in late 2001.
The amendment by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) would have compelled Obama to report within 60 days on an exit strategy, including a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops and handing off military operations to the Afghan government.
Although the measure did not pass, it captured 42 more votes than a similar proposal in July. Support ranged from the traditional antiwar left to "tea party" conservatives upset about the cost of the war.
Most of those who supported the amendment were Democrats, including the entire House Democratic leadership. Among them was the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who had been a reliable supporter of the war in previous years.
"It is essential that we fight the smartest war possible against terrorists — but it is fair to ask how a massive troop presence in Afghanistan continues to help us accomplish that goal," Hoyer said in a speech before the vote.
The number of Republicans who supported the amendment increased to 26 — nearly triple the total from the last vote.
Lawmakers say they've lost their appetite for an expensive conflict at a time of high deficits and other priorities closer to home. They cite the death of Osama bin Laden last month, and they contend that mercurial Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not a reliable partner. Some question the wisdom of committing resources to Afghanistan when Pakistan and Yemen may be bigger hotbeds of terrorist activity.
During a confirmation hearing Wednesday for Ryan Crocker, Obama's nominee for ambassador to Afghanistan, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a close White House ally, captured the sense of impatience. "While the U.S. has genuine national security interests in Afghanistan, our current commitment in troops and in dollars is neither proportional to our interests nor sustainable," Kerry said.
Obama's habit is to split the difference when confronted with competing pressures. Past practice suggests he may opt for a small initial reduction followed by a series of more aggressive withdrawals culminating in the formal handoff of security responsibilities to the Afghans in 2014. McGovern and others who met with the president at the White House recently said they did not get the impression he would order a major troop reduction right away.
"I didn't get the assurance that I wished I would have received that this would be a dramatic drawdown," McGovern said in an interview.
Electoral realities may also sway the decision. The public is increasingly tired of the war — a fact not lost on White House political advisors gearing up for a reelection campaign next year. Americans tend to rate the war low on their list of concerns, but growing numbers believe the U.S. should get out now.
The administration debate will take place in summer, a time when the pace of fighting and the number of casualties traditionally increase. Unlike past wars, however, in which casualties were a singular source of frustration, voters seem more annoyed by the drain on U.S. resources.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center found that most Americans believe that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the main expense driving the federal budget deficit.
Budget experts say the large deficits are the product of many forces: stimulus, bailout and prescription drug packages that weren't paid for; Bush-era tax cuts; and a slumping economy.