WASHINGTON -- The war in Afghanistan is increasingly becoming the war no one wants.
Opposition to the conflict is now mainstream, with the vast majority of the American public favoring a substantial drawdown of U.S. troops. With the death of bin Laden, the growing cost of operations and frustrated constituents, an increasing group of congressional lawmakers is also voicing concerns. Even within the Obama administration, there are reports of some aides pushing for a strong drawdown.
The most dramatic display of this shift came in the House last week when 204 lawmakers -- 178 Democrats and 26 Republicans -- voted for Rep. Jim McGovern's (D-Mass.) legislation requiring President Barack Obama to present a plan "with a timeframe and completion date" for the transfer of military operations to Afghan authorities. The measure fell just 12 votes short of passage. A similar amendment in the last Congress received 162 votes in support and only nine supporting votes cast by Republicans.
"I was surprised that so many people had the guts to vote for it," McGovern told The Huffington Post. "If there were a secret vote here, I think the vote would be even higher. I've had a number of people -- some Democrats, but a lot of Republicans -- come up to me after the vote and say they wish they could have been with me. The American people are ahead of the Congress on this issue, and they're way ahead of the administration."
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) did not vote for McGovern's amendment. But at the Faith and Freedom Conference on Friday, he said he understood the frustration of many of his colleagues.
"Some individuals believe that with the killing of Osama bin Laden, one of our main missions has been accomplished," said Price. "Many members have questions about whether or not it's possible to stand up a government in Afghanistan that resembles something we would be comfortable with, and therefore they're not going to lose any more treasure from the United States there. Some folks are just tired of us being there. Some folks don't have any confidence or faith in the President of the United States to execute competently the charge that he's been given. So there are a variety of reasons of why those numbers are ticking up, and I think they'll continue to increase."
When asked if he shares those concerns, Price replied, "Every one of them."
With the beginning of withdrawal set to begin in July and the president said to be sticking to his plan to complete the handover of security operations to Afghan forces by 2014, the pressure exhibited by these lawmakers could end up forcing the administration's hand for a more robust withdrawal.
Yet at the same time, the avenues available to lawmakers to push withdrawal are limited between now and the start of the July drawdown.
"There really aren't many pieces of legislation coming up where it's germane to have this Afghanistan discussion," said McGovern. "We might have the defense appropriations bill coming up before the end of June, but the problem with the defense bill is you can't legislate on an appropriations bill. You only can add or cut. So you can't say I'm going to cut enough to force the president to begin to bring our troops home. It just makes it very difficult."
A senior Democratic aide told The Huffington Post that a group of progressive members were trying to get the Democratic caucus to issue a statement endorsing a swift withdrawal, similar to what the Democratic National Committee did in February in a resolution pushed by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mike Honda (D-Calif.). Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus recently went to a full Democratic caucus meeting and made the case to their colleagues.
The aide said that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) are generally supportive of the drawdown position. Both voted in favor of the McGovern amendment and have privately committed weighing in with the White House.
Last week, McGovern took his concerns straight to the president during the Democratic caucus meeting at the White House on the debt ceiling. He reportedly received strong applause from his colleagues.
Pro-drawdown advocates have been discussing how to keep the pressure up in the coming weeks, building upon the success of the McGovern amendment vote. But most of the lawmakers who spoke with The Huffington Post said the administration had not yet reached out to them to discuss withdrawal, although they hoped that would change as July approaches.
"We'll see -- at least I hope -- some outreach being done by the administration, in terms of how fast we anticipate it being acceptable to Congress, and how fast we'll be doing the drawdown," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who is a member of both the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Armed Services Committee. "Right now there's a lot of concern that the president and the administration is going to slow-walk this thing."
Just because these conversations aren't happening as frequently as some would like now doesn't mean they won't going forward, once the military commanders submit their recommendations to the president.
"Certainly Afghanistan and Pakistan come up regularly in both the president's conversations with Congress and in staff conversations, but we've said that these drawdown recommendations will be developed by the commanders in the field based on conditions on the ground first," said National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also said on Monday that the cost of the war won't be a factor into the White House's decisions on withdrawal.
Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former adviser to U.S. Central Command, said the main negotiations are happening now are between the military and the White House and between the U.S. government and the Afghan government.
The debate playing out within the administration can be seen in the competing voices in recent news stories. On one hand, there's outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates who is advocating for modest reductions in U.S. forces in July. There was also a May report by the Wall Street Journal about an initial military plan to withdraw about 5,000 troops -- a number far below what many lawmakers would like to see.
On the other side was a Monday story in The New York Times, which reported that the president's national security team was "contemplating troop reductions in Afghanistan that would be steeper than those discussed even a few weeks ago, with some officials arguing that such a change is justified by the rising cost of the war and the death of Osama bin Laden, which they called new 'strategic considerations.' "
Among Afghan officials, according to Exum, there is concern about what happens economically when the United States withdraws.
"I think the Afghans are somewhat scared that the goose that lays the golden egg and has, in a lot of ways, enabled some pretty dramatic GDP growth in Afghanistan and allowed a lot of Afghans to become quite wealthy is now going to be leaving," said Exum. "On the other hand, I think, Afghan decision makers are genuinely concerned that the United States is going to withdraw without any big infrastructure projects that are going to put Afghanistan on the path to financial stability."
What everyone is now waiting to hear from the president is how many troops will come out in July and what the pace of the withdrawal will look like. There are currently about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan; 30,000 of them went in as part of the "surge" Obama announced in December 2009. Reyes said anything below 20,000 will probably elicit a "hue and a cry" from Congress.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, introduced an amendment to the defense bill last month calling for the United States to reduce troop levels to 25,000 by the end of 2012 and to 10,000 by the end of 2013.
"I told both [Amb. Karl] Eikenberry and [Gen. David] Petraeus that the next 30 days are critical," said Garamendi, recounting his conversations during his trip to Afghanistan. "Within the next 30 days, it's my view that Congress expected to see a very specific plan for a drawdown and clarity in our mission."
This story has been updated with the correct number of votes a similar amendment to McGovern's received in the last Congress.
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