CORRECTION: The original version of this report misstated the number of Republicans who signed on to the letter. There are two.
A group of 27 senators—including most of the Democratic leadership—have signed on to a letter calling on President Obama to begin a “sizable and sustained” U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer, the latest indication of the war’s deepening unpopularity on Capitol Hill.
In the letter, powerful lawmakers like Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s majority whip, and Sen. Patty Murray, the chair of the party’s 2012 campaign operation, urge Obama to shift the overall war strategy from a manpower-intensive counterinsurgency approach to a narrower effort to train Afghan security forces and hunt down individual militants.
The letter’s signatories—who run the gamut from conservative Democrats like Montana’s Max Baucus to outspoken progressives like Minnesota’s Al Franken, and from veterans with safe seats like Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow to vulnerable freshmen like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown—said that the last of the primary American military objectives in Afghanistan was accomplished with the recent killing of al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden.
“The costs for prolonging the war far outweigh the benefits,” the lawmakers write. “It is time for the United States to shift course in Afghanistan.”
The letter doesn’t specify how many of the roughly 100,000 troops currently in Afghanistan should return home, but it stresses that the withdrawal should be “sizable and sustained” and include combat forces as well as logistical and support troops. The emphasis on combat personnel reflects the growing concern on Capitol Hill that Obama will bow to the Pentagon and order a minimal withdrawal mainly of troops who aren’t directly involved in the fight against the Taliban and its allies.
Other prominent senators signing the letter include Chuck Schumer of New York, the party’s third-ranking official, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who serves on the Armed Services Committee and began his Senate career during the Vietnam debate. The effort was organized by Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico, along with Republican Mike Lee of Utah. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky was the other Republican to sign on.
The letter comes at a pivotal moment for the war, already the longest in American history. The White House begins a high-stakes internal debate this week about how many troops to begin bringing back from Afghanistan next month, the administration’s self-imposed deadline for starting the withdrawal of the 30,000 “surge” forces it deployed to the war zone last year. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Kabul, will formally present his recommendations to Obama and his senior national-security aides within days.
Obama recently promised that he will begin a “significant” drawdown in July, and several senior Pentagon officials have said in recent weeks that they expect the president to ultimately order a phased withdrawal of two brigades, or roughly 10,000 troops. But it’s far from clear that the White House is prepared to reject the advice of Petraeus and the other top military commanders who prefer a much smaller withdrawal. In recent comments, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the coming withdrawal should be “modest.” Comments like that motivated Wednesday’s letter.