by Jessica Rettig

June 13, 2011

With bin Laden dead and fiscal conservatism on the rise, Afghanistan becomes about more than national security and terrorism

After a decade, nearly 1,500 American soldiers have been killed and more than 11,500 have been wounded in action in Afghanistan. While these casualties have surely had an effect on U.S. policy, increasingly in Congress the focus on Afghanistan is as much about treasure as about blood.

Starting nearly a decade ago in the fall of 2001, the military intervention in Afghanistan, which has never been formally declared by Congress as a war, will cost U.S. taxpayers about $113 billion total, or roughly more than $2 billion per week, in the current fiscal year. As the administration prepares for its promised withdrawal of troops starting in July, the anti-spending climate in Washington could be the political impetus that opponents of the Afghanistan war have been waiting for, as more lawmakers in both parties are hoping to cut back more quickly.

At the end of 2009, President Obama committed an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, at the same time promising that withdrawal of troops would begin in July 2011. But even then, the administration made clear that the drawdown of troops would be conditional and would not mean an end to military action there. At a hearing last summer, Army Gen. David Petraeus, now the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said that the July 2011 deadline was "the date when a process begins, based on conditions, not the date the [United States] heads for the exits."

In the meantime, the administration has been careful not to set any concrete plans or deadlines, only estimating that the Afghans would take the lead on security by the end of 2014. But recently, lawmakers have tried to push Obama further on the issue.

For example with a surprisingly close 204-215 vote the House blocked an amendment that would require the administration to provide a plan and timeline for the "accelerated transition" of military operations to Afghan forces. North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones , who cosponsored the amendment with Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern , says he was "tickled" by the outcome, especially the fact that 26 Republicans voted for it -- the most GOP support for pulling out of Afghanistan in the last four or five years, he says.

Jones says that it's the "broken bodies" coming back to his district that serve as his own political motivation to push for a quick withdrawal, but he admits that for many of his Republican colleagues, the financial reasons are what really hit home. "When we have cut programs left and right for senior citizens and children, yet we are taking care of Mr. Karzai who is corrupt -- it doesn't make any sense," Jones says.

With the rise of fiscal conservatism in the 112th Congress, there seems to be less agreement within the GOP over how to proceed against terrorism. Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz , who also sponsored an amendment last week that would speed up the withdrawal of U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan, says his party has been "woefully slow at taking a good conservative position" on the issue. Pointing to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden as an indication that smaller special forces and intelligence can get the job done, Chaffetz argues that spending money on thousands of ground troops is no longer necessary. "Americans will pay any price to keep our homeland secure, but this has nothing to do with the clear and present danger to the United States of America. This is about nation building, and I'm opposed to it," he says.

Thomas Donnelly, director of defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank, disagrees with this view and says that the idea that the current U.S. role in Afghanistan is about nation-building is completely miscast. "It's a much more traditional 'kill bad guys, and take back villages' [approach], more like a traditional pacification campaign. The more 'hearts and minds' stuff has been set aside," he says. "We're focused first and foremost on building the Afghan security forces to the point where they can win any firefight that they may get in. It's really army building, or security force building, even before state building or let alone nation building."

It would be dangerous, Donnelly says, for the United States and other allies to pull back too quickly and give up the success already gained against terrorist groups in Afghanistan like al Qaeda, not to mention the Taliban. Donnelly also says that U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan offer important leverage against insurgent groups in Pakistan to the south.

For all the renewed emphasis on the bottom line, any action to change or speed up the Obama administration's policy would still face challenges politically. The Republican leadership hasn't appeared ready to speed up withdrawal, making attempts to force a timeline tough for House members. Also, although many Democrats oppose the war, it's unlikely that the president's own party would split with him legislatively on such a divisive issue during his reelection campaign. "The president has an immense amount of flexibility here," Donnelly says. "I can't imagine that the Democrats would so undercut a Democratic president. It would be politically suicidal, regardless of what they think about the war."

Chaffetz says that he'll keep pushing the issue in resolutions and amendments moving forward. He may have a chance to do so soon with the defense appropriations bill for 2012 now under consideration. The bill already includes $39 billion in savings from last year "due to drawdown of U.S. forces overseas." However, according to a top aide on the appropriations committee, those savings account for the expected withdrawal in Iraq, not in Afghanistan.


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