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Growing Bipartisanship in Support of a Slower Withdrawal of U.S. Troops From Afghanistan

It’s starting to look like the United States will keep military forces in Afghanistan longer than planned. A growing number of key Senate Democrats have quietly joined Republicans and Pentagon leaders in advocating a slower withdrawal and a longer stay for U.S. troops because of concern about the security situation.

Republicans have long criticized the administration for setting dates for the withdrawal, and now Democrats who oversee the Pentagon have gradually begun to agree — and they have done so more and more openly. They appear concerned that without U.S. troops, the situation in Afghanistan could quickly deteriorate, as it did in Iraq after U.S. forces left more three years ago.

“Back home in West Virginia, they want to know, ‘Do we have to go back and re-buy it all over like we do in Iraq? Can we prevent that in Afghanistan?,” Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III asked at a Feb. 12 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Afghanistan.

If enough Democrats who have been criticizing the Afghanistan timetable join Republican opponents and military leaders, it would be more difficult politically for President Barack Obama to hold to his plan. The mounting congressional pressure could raise the odds that the president will extend the presence of U.S. forces beyond 2016 if Kabul agrees, or at least slow the pace of the pullout.

Some signs suggest it’s working.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter told reporters in Afghanistan over the weekend that Obama is considering changes to the withdrawal timeline, which would reduce the 10,000 U.S. troops there now by nearly half by the end of the year and would extricate all but a handful by the end of 2016.

The commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, said nine days earlier he had asked the White House for more “flexibility” on the speed of withdrawal and on where and how to deploy those that remained.

No one’s talking about tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan again. But a force of thousands of American military personnel could remain fighting America’s longest war.

‘Calendar-Based’ Withdrawal

Nine months ago, Obama said U.S. military missions that were officially designated as “combat” would discontinue in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. U.S. troop levels would be reduced from 33,000 to 9,800 at the start of 2015, and be halved a year later, he said. U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016, save for a minimal force at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

The Democrats who dissented from the plan at the time the administration announced it actually wanted Americans brought home sooner. The most liberal Democrats will continue to push for that. It was virtually unheard of in May 2014 for a Democrat to say American troops should stay in Afghanistan longer.

Today, a growing number are saying the withdrawal may be too hasty.

The change comes as the Taliban fights against an Afghan army still finding its legs and as civilian casualties reached an all-time high in 2014.

At this month’s Senate Armed Services hearing, four of the eight Democrats who spoke said, in essence, more U.S. troops should stay longer in Afghanistan if U.S. commanders think security conditions require it.

Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the committee, got things started at Carter’s confirmation hearing on Feb. 4. “It remains to be seen,” he said, “whether conditions on the ground in Afghanistan will improve sufficiently by the end of 2016 to warrant the pace of further reductions under the current plan.”

At the hearing with Campbell a week later, Reed said he shared the concern of other committee members that future troop withdrawals “should be based on the security conditions at the time of the proposed reductions, taking into account the capabilities of the Afghan security forces and the status of the counterterrorism fight.”

Reed was supporting a Republican critique of the situation. His predecessor on the committee, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, who is now retired, wanted a date for U.S. withdrawal to motivate Afghans to take responsibility for their own security.

At the Feb. 12 hearing, Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia was more direct than Reed.

“Everything we do should be conditions-based, not calendar-based,” Kaine said. “I think it’s OK to have a plan. But  . . .  then you need to adjust it, based on the reality.”

Another Democrat, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, chimed in, arguing that U.S. military commanders need “more flexibility to do what’s needed” in Afghanistan, based on “the situation on the ground.”

Manchin said America “fell backwards in Iraq” and asked Campbell, “What do you think it will take us to maintain a presence so that we don’t fall backwards in Afghanistan?”

Democratic concerns may get louder, especially as Obama’s advisers are practically advertising that they want him to rewrite the withdrawal plan.

Those Democrats who dissented from the plan were not more apparent before now in part because the defense committees have been distracted by the Islamic State conflict.

Republicans, led by Arizona Sen. John McCain, have been withering in their assault on Obama’s withdrawal plan.

“A lack of presence creates a vacuum, and we’ve seen what fills that vacuum in Syria and Iraq,” McCain said, referring to the Islamic State insurgency.

Winter Review

The Feb. 12 hearing came a day after Campbell briefed White House aides on what the general called a “winter review” of alternatives to the May 2014 timeline. Campbell also held private meetings with a number of members of Senate Armed Services. He didn’t detail his proposals at the hearing, but he hinted that U.S. troops would be withdrawn more slowly and that the forces remaining would not be as concentrated around the Kabul of those forces that remain.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest gave no indication Obama is ready to slow the pace of withdrawal or extend the December 2016 deadline for completing it.

The president “has preserved for himself the flexibility to respond to the security situation on the ground,” Earnest said on Feb. 11. “But what has been clear over the course of the last six years is that the president’s vision for the strategy has been consistent. And I can tell you that over the course of the last two years, as we continue to withdraw our military personnel from Afghanistan, the president remains committed to that strategy.”

Obama already adjusted his plan once. He allowed U.S. commanders to keep 1,000 more American troops in Afghanistan at the beginning of this year than the 9,800 previously planned. Additional adjustments may soon be forthcoming, and that will be welcome not just by Republicans but by a growing number of Democrats.

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