WASHINGTON -- Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) advocated a "change of course" in Afghanistan on Wednesday afternoon, saying the death of Osama bin Laden presented the United States with an "opportunity" to reassess its national security strategy.
Significantly, he called for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of 2012, a timeline more accelerated than the one proposed by the Obama administration.
"The United States should not be doing the work that Afghans should be doing for themselves," said Baucus in a speech on the Senate floor. "The Afghans need to stand up and take responsibility for the security of their own country."
"The President has announced that this July will mark the beginning of a transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces," he continued. "However, in my view the transition plan is too slow. We need to begin handing responsibility of security to Afghan forces immediately and aim to have most US combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next year. We should leave behind only a small force to hunt down and kill terrorists in Afghanistan, and to help the Afghan military perform their duties."
The senator's comments on Wednesday are stronger than the ones he gave just a couple of weeks ago, on the day after the President told the nation bin Laden was dead.
In a floor statement on May 2, Baucus pointed to the July withdrawal date and said, "I urge the President to make this transition robust, orderly, and persistent until all of our troops come home." He did not argue for a more rapid withdrawal at that time.
President Obama has called for withdrawal to begin in July and be completed by 2014, but he has not yet released an exact timeline that sets the pace of withdrawal. A recent Wall Street Journal report said that U.S. military officers in Afghanistan have drawn up "preliminary proposals to withdraw as many as 5,000 troops from the country in July and as many as 5,000 more by the year's end" -- a small fraction of the 100,000 U.S. troops who are in Afghanistan now.
Baucus' proposal goes beyond the Safe and Responsible Redeployment of United States Combat Forces from Afghanistan Act, a measure by several of his Democratic colleagues that would constitute official Senate support for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces beginning on July 1. It would also require Obama to submit a plan to Congress by July 31 for the phased redeployment of U.S. combat forces, including a completion day.
On the floor, Baucus pointed to the cost both in lives and dollars that the war in Afghanistan has cost the country. As of today, 1,219 U.S. troops have been killed, and 11,541 have been wounded.
"Since September 11, 2001, we have spent over $1.2 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "Every month, we spend $10 billion in Afghanistan. This is roughly one out of every seven dollars we spend on defense. This level of spending is simply not sustainable."
He also called on the United States to refocus its attention on Pakistan, the country where bin Laden was ultimately found.
"Without progress in Pakistan, we cannot succeed in Afghanistan," continued Baucus. "But the sad irony is our large troop presence in Afghanistan actually makes it harder to press Pakistan to crack down on terrorists and militants."
"Most of the fuel, food, and ammunition for our troops in Afghanistan are imported through Pakistan. As long as we depend on the Port of Karachi for our supplies, we have limited leverage on Pakistan to force an end to this deadly double game. To effectively defend our nation against terrorism, we need to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan and focus on Pakistan."