The politics of the war have also become considerably more complicated for Obama. Democratic support for the war has evaporated in Congress, and an array of powerful Democrats have begun demanding that Obama bring the conflict to a close. Last week, 27 senators—including powerful figures such as Sens. Dick Durbinof Illionois, the Senate’s majority whip, and Patty Murray of Washington, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party’s 2012 Senate campaign operation—released a letter calling on Obama to begin a major troop withdrawal this summer. The letter’s signatories ran the gamut from conservative Democrats such as Montana’s Max Baucus to outspoken progressives such as Minnesota’s Al Franken, and from veterans with safe seats such as Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow to vulnerable freshmen such as Ohio’s Sherrod Brown.
In their letter, the senators didn’t specify how many troops should return home, but they stressed that the withdrawal should be “sizable and sustained” and include combat forces as well as logistical and support troops. The emphasis on combat personnel reflected the concern on Capitol Hill that Obama would bow to the Pentagon and order a minimal withdrawal composed mainly of troops who aren’t directly involved in the fight against the Taliban and its allies.
Republicans—who had long been almost universally hawkish about Afghanistan—are also beginning to turn against the war. Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky signed on to last week’s letter, and 26 House Republicans backed a Democratic amendment last month that would have mandated a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan. The measure attracted 204 votes, not enough to pass but far more than the 162 it received last year when the House was still under Democratic control.
The shift has been particularly striking among the candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination, who used a recent debate to signal unease about the length and cost of the Afghan war and to urge Obama to bring as many troops from home from Afghanistan this year as possible.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who formally entered the presidential race on Tuesday, told Esquire recently that the Afghan war was no longer in America’s long-term interests.
“Whether we like it or not, whenever we withdraw from Afghanistan, whether it’s now or years from now, we’ll have an incendiary situation,” Huntsman told the magazine. “Should we stay and play traffic cop? I don’t think that serves our strategic interests.”
Comments like Huntsman’s underscore Obama’s challenge on Wednesday. The administration clearly hopes that announcing firm plans to begin withdrawing troops will mollify critics of the Afghan war and prevent public support for the war from declining even further. But with Republicans joining Democrats in demanding a quick end to the long war, it may be too late for any troop withdrawal—no matter how big—to tamp down the public’s growing sense that the conflict is simply no longer worth fighting.