Lawmakers urging speedy pullout in Afghanistan unlikely to make headaway

On Capitol Hill, the death of Osama bin Laden has triggered renewed calls from legislators in both parties for the United States to speed up its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But it does not seem to have removed the two political obstacles that have kept these same lawmakers from putting real pressure on the White House in the past.

They still lack the support of either party’s leadership. And they still do not have an urgent piece of legislation — a bill central to the war effort — to force a distracted Congress to focus on Afghanistan.

“We’re inept. We are inept and irrelevant,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said about Congress. Chaffetz said bin Laden’s death should force a reevaluation of the war, because the terrorist leader was found not by the 100,000 ground troops in Afghanistan but by a small contingent of Special Operations forces — and in Pakistan.

“Too many of our colleagues are afraid of being quote-unquote soft on terror” if they criticize President Obama on Afghanistan, said Chaffetz, who publicly turned against the war in October 2009. “He probably gets even more latitude now.”

Such criticism met with a rebuke from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who has opposed Obama’s plans for a drawdown of troops from Afghanistan beginning in July. Boehner, who visited the Afghan capital, Kabul, last month, views the killing of bin Laden as proof that the president should recommit to Gen. David H. Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

“This war on terrorism is critical to the safety and security of the American people. We still face a complex and dangerous terrorist threat. And it’s important that we remain vigilant,” Boehner told reporters Thursday.

Obama has said that troops will begin withdrawing in July, but he has not said how many or how fast. Petraeus has warned that recent battlefield gains by U.S. troops in Afghanistan are “fragile and reversible.”

In the past week, the lawmakers urging a speedy withdrawal have come from both parties, some of them high-ranking voices on foreign policy.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that “it is exceedingly difficult to conclude that our vast expenditures in Afghanistan represent a rational allocation of our military and financial assets.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for a “robust” reduction in the number of troops this summer. He said that bin Laden’s death only contributes to “the sense that the Afghans now are in an even better position to take responsibility” for their country’s security.

In the House, six members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote a letter to Obama on Wednesday, recommending a “significant drawdown” in U.S. troops this summer. On Thursday, Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) introduced a bill that would require Obama to present an “exit strategy” for troops in Afghanistan.

But many of these legislators have said similar things in the past. Back then, they didn’t have what lawmakers call a “legislative vehicle” — a bill or a budget measure that would let them seize Capitol Hill’s spotlight and focus it on Afghanistan.

And they still don’t.

The next time Congress takes up a bill that would alter the course of the war might be weeks or months away, when it crafts the Defense Department’s 2012 budget and a companion measure for Pentagon policies.

In the meantime, neither party’s congressional leaders seem interested in pushing for a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has said that he supports Obama’s plan. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said little about the broader course of the war since bin Laden’s death.

In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that she saw no reason to challenge the White House’s Afghanistan plans. She said that she had visited Afghanistan in March and that “what I saw there was, for the first time, very positive action being taken to transition us out.”

It does not appear that the House’s 87 GOP freshmen, including vocal conservatives who have pushed Boehner on fiscal debates, will unite to challenge him on this matter.

“I think the Taliban and al-Qaeda, you hit ’em when they’re down,” Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.) said Thursday. “I believe this is the time, right now, when we double down.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who was traveling in Afghanistan the day before bin Laden was killed, said the al-Qaeda leader’s death bolsters the case against a speedy withdrawal.

“This isn’t the end of the war in Afghanistan,” Kinzinger said. “This is an uppercut to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But this stresses that now that we’re on the offense and now that we’re really making gains, now is not the time to reverse those gains.”

Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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