Democrats Largely Disappointed With Obama's Afghanistan Announcement
WASHINGTON -- Democratic lawmakers who have been pressing for a sizable and significant withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan almost universally expressed disappointment with President Barack Obama's speech on Wednesday night.
The president told the nation in a prime time address that 10,000 U.S. troops will be leaving the war by the end of 2011, with another 23,000 coming out by autumn of 2012. The drawdown will fully remove the troops that went in as part of the "surge" that Obama announced in his 2009 speech at West Point. Approximately 68,000 troops will still be fighting in the war.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters on Tuesday that the president needed to put forward, at a minimum, an initial withdrawal of 15,000 troops -- a number that Obama fell short of -- to meet his promise of a "significant" drawdown.
"The president's decision represents a positive development, although in my view the conditions on the ground justify an even larger drawdown of U.S. troops this year than the president announced tonight," he said in a statement after the speech. "I will continue to advocate for an accelerated drawdown in the months ahead, and for enhanced training and partnering with Afghan forces, because only they can provide durable security for their nation."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has been a vocal supporter of a robust withdrawal, also said president's announcement was not what she had been hoping for. "It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the President laid out -- and we will continue to press for a better outcome," she said.
"[W]e'll have twice as many combat troops in Afghanistan at the end of his term than we did at the beginning. We should instead have a path to bring those troops home," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Merkley, along with Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), was one of the authors of a letter calling for a "sizable and sustained reduction" of military forces in Afghanistan, which garnered the support of 27 senators. Merkley said he would consider an initial reduction of 15,000 to 20,000 troops to be sizable.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is one of the co-sponsors of the Safe and Responsible Redeployment of United States Combat Forces from Afghanistan Act, legislation that would require Obama to submit a plan to Congress by July 31 for the phased redeployment of U.S. combat forces, including a completion day.
But Obama's speech on Wednesday did not have such a timetable. "Ending the surge in 2012 with a disappointing 10,000 combat troops coming home this year is not good enough. As I have advocated for months, it is time to shift course in Afghanistan to a counter-terrorism mission, with an aggressive drawdown of combat troops," said Gillibrand in response to the speech.
"I welcome the President's decision to redeploy 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer, but am disappointed he did not announce a change in strategy from a counterinsurgency to a counterterrorism mission," added Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who has advocated a strategic redirection toward a smaller military footprint. "Even with fewer troops, if we do not shift our strategy, we will be no closer to a truly secure and stable Afghanistan five years from now than we are today."
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) was the sponsor of a measure requiring the president to provide "a timeframe and completion date" for the transfer of military operations to Afghan authorities. It failed by just 12 votes last month. He criticized Obama's announcement on Wednesday as "insufficient."
"The president is right that we need to shift our strategy in Afghanistan," he said. "But a counter-terrorism strategy doesn't need 70,000 boots on the ground, any more than it needed 100,000 boots on the ground. What the president needs to tell us is how -- and when -- he's going to bring all the troops home."
Rep. Pete Welch (D-Vt.) called Obama's plan "a welcome step in the right direction" but said he will continue to urge him to "bring more troops home sooner and faster."
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the Out of Afghanistan Caucus, sent out a press release saying the Afghanistan war continues "with no end in sight."
"While I appreciate that the President has decided to bring home some troops this year, the slow speed of this withdrawal unfortunately ensures that the vast majority of our servicemen and women will be embroiled in an unaffordable military quagmire for at least two more years," he said.
And in an interview with The Huffington Post on Wednesday night, Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) -- who called 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 -- called Obama's speech "disappointing."
"He is maintaining the same counterinsurgency, nation-building mission that we've now been on for more than a year -- one that's been incredibly expensive and commits tens of thousands of troops for the long term in Afghanistan," he said.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who was the only member of Congress to vote against the initial invasion into Afghanistan, called the planned drawdown "unacceptable."
"As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I will work with members on both sides of the aisle to pass my amendment to end funding for combat operations in Afghanistan and to begin the safe and orderly withdrawal of our courageous troops," she said.
Mixed in with all this criticism was a few Democrats who did defend the president's announcement.
Udall's statement didn't criticize Obama's speech at all, but did urge him to "institute a 12 to 18 month flexible timeline for the Afghans to take control of their own security."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) characterized it as "a critical step in the right direction" that will "capitalize on the progress we’ve made in Afghanistan to finish the job and ensure al Qaeda’s long-term, strategic defeat."
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said the new plan "makes it clear to the Afghan people that it is time for them to step up to control their own future because America's sons and daughters -- our most precious resources -- won't be there forever."
Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) backed Obama, saying he "delivered on his promise to begin responsibly drawing down our troops in Afghanistan."
This story has been updated.