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In Congress, A Bipartisan Push For Afghan Drawdown

KPBS Special Coverage: Obama's Speech On Afghan Troop Drawdown at 5 p.m. Join us online or tune in to 89.5 FM for live coverage of President Obama's announcement.

Growing numbers of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are balking both at the length of the war in Afghanistan and its cost.

U.S. troops move into Helmand province during a major offensive against the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.
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Above: U.S. troops move into Helmand province during a major offensive against the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

Late last month, a few weeks after U.S. forces killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the Republican-run House voted on a bipartisan amendment aimed at hastening an end to the war in Afghanistan. To the surprise of many, it fell just six votes shy of passing.

Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) was one of 26 members of his party who joined nearly every Democrat in voting for the measure.

"I was never one, even when George Bush was in the White House, to say we should be engaged in nation building," Garrett said. "I never thought that was the appropriate role of the United States."

Others have recently shifted their stance on Afghanistan.

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), the top House Democrat on the defense spending panel, was once a strong supporter of President Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan. But now he's hoping for what he calls a substantial reduction of U.S. forces in that country.

"People are ... having real concerns that this is going to go on for too long and then we're going to be there for another 10 years after 2014," he said. "And I just don't think that's sustainable."

Letter From Senators

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the No. 2 Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, shares that view.

"This is a massive nation-building effort, and ... I don't think that's an effort that is sustainable nor one we should be involved in," Corker said.

Last week, 27 senators sent Obama a letter calling for a shift in strategy in Afghanistan and, as they put it, "a sizeable and sustained reduction" of the U.S. forces there. Freshman Tea Party favorite Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is one of two Republicans who signed that letter.

"I'd like the president to be more like the candidate," Paul said, referring to when Obama was running for president.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama advocated ending the war in Iraq. His GOP rival in that race, Arizona Sen. John McCain, bemoaned Tuesday the trend of more and more Republicans now opposing the war in Afghanistan.

"We are succeeding," he said. "They should listen to Gen. [David] Petraeus, just as we did in 2007, when then Sen. Obama and then Sen. {Hillary] Clinton said that we had to withdraw immediately from Iraq. We stayed the course; we succeeded."

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Joe Manchin, a freshman Democrat from West Virginia, said the U.S. should by all means declare success in Afghanistan — and go home.

"I believe it is time for President Obama to begin a substantial and responsible reduction in our military presence in Afghanistan," he said. "I believe it is time for us to rebuild America, not Afghanistan."

Accusation Of Isolationism

McCain, who was also on the floor at the time, lashed out at Manchin.

"I feel compelled to respond to the statements by the senator from West Virginia, which characterized the isolationist, withdrawal, lack-of-knowledge-of-history attitude that seems to be on the rise in America," he said.

But Manchin was not backing down.

"We are a very hawkish state, as you know, and we're a very patriotic state," he said. "But if 10 years is not enough, how long is enough?"

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he wants Obama to announce a significant drawdown on Wednesday — at a minimum, 15,000 troops by the end of the year.

"The Taliban use our presence there to both recruit and to build up support for their attacks on people because they claim they're going after foreign occupiers," he said. "And if we have a significant reduction, we take away that argument of the Taliban, which has helped them, which means it has hurt us."

Levin says he'll wait to hear what the president has to say before deciding whether more congressional action is needed to spur a U.S. withdrawal. But this much he does know: War fatigue has become more bipartisan on Capitol Hill, just as it has nationwide.

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