Domestic Demands Spur Calls for U.S. Drawdown from Afghanistan

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker
Ambassador Ryan Crocker testifies during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers yesterday questioned the role of the U.S. in Afghanistan, pushing for a significant troop reduction even as the Obama administration emphasizes the need to maintain a strong presence in the country.

The chasm between the two branches of government was clear at the confirmation hearing for Ryan Crocker, President Barack Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Afghanistan. Tension between foreign policy priorities and domestic demands is increasing as Obama prepares to announce an initial troop drawdown next month. The president has pledged to fully transfer security responsibility to the Afghan government by 2014.

Concern over the rising U.S. debt has driven the congressional drumbeat for a significant pullout. Those calls have grown since the killing last month of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and were amplified with the release yesterday of a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report that almost $19 billion in U.S. aid to Afghanistan may have undermined the government and promoted corruption.

“We’re expecting pretty dramatic changes at the end of this fighting season,” said Tennessee Republican Senator Robert Corker, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which met with Crocker yesterday. “All of us know the model we have in Afghanistan is not sustainable for multiple reasons. There’s a great degree -- it’s not impatience -- there’s a great degree of us knowing this is not sustainable.”

Back to Kabul

Crocker, 61, is being called back to duty as a diplomat from his position as dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Before his retirement from the Foreign Service in 2009, the Spokane, Washington, native in 2002 re-opened the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, which had been closed since 1989. He also was ambassador to Pakistan from 2004 to 2007 and ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009.

The Obama administration has said repeatedly that national security requires a U.S. presence in Afghanistan. In a separate hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday, FBI Director Robert Mueller told lawmakers that early assessments from intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s Pakistan compound shows that al-Qaeda remains committed to attacking the U.S.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted June 2-5 found that 73 percent of those surveyed favor a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this summer, compared with 23 percent who don’t.

While the White House has said that a troop drawdown will depend on conditions on the ground, lawmakers with anxious constituents are seeking more definitive answers.

‘Messy Situation’

“This is a messy situation that isn’t getting any better,” Senator James Risch, an Idaho Republican, told Crocker. “Since I’ve been elected, people back home keep asking me, what’s going to happen, how’s this going to end?”

The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, cautioned that the U.S. has to consider the costs versus the benefits of its involvement, a recurring theme among members of his party. “Our current commitment in troops and in dollars is neither proportional to our interests nor sustainable,” Kerry said.

In a June 3 interview, Democratic Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts said recent House support for resolutions that curtail involvement in Libya and Afghanistan reflect concern over the cost of the U.S. military missions. “There is an increasing recognition that reducing military expenditures is essential to overall deficit reduction,” Frank said.

War Costs

Six in 10 Americans say the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed a “great deal” to the national debt, according to a poll released June 7 by the independent Pew Research Center in Washington. The wars were cited more than other specific factors, such as the condition of the national economy (42 percent), increased domestic spending (24 percent) and tax cuts over the past 10 years (19 percent) in the poll taken May 25-30.

Among liberal Democrats, eight in 10 cited wars as contributing a “great deal” to the debt, Pew said, while that view is held by just under half of conservative Republicans.

In fact, the largest factors underlying the growth of the deficit since 2001 have been tax cuts, domestic spending and the recession, with war costs ranked fourth, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group in Washington that used data from the Congressional Budget Office in its analysis.

Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat and former Reagan administration defense official, invoked President Ronald Reagan’s speech writer Peggy Noonan yesterday, telling Crocker that “if there’s any country in the world that needs nation-building, it’s the United States.”

Kerry suggested that bin Laden’s death, “our principal reason for being in Afghanistan in the first place,” gives the U.S. an opportunity to recalibrate its policy.

‘Much Work Remains’

Crocker directly rebutted that point. While bin Laden’s death was an “important step” toward the core objective of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda, “much work remains to be done to ensure” that the militant group “can never again threaten us from Afghanistan with the Taliban providing safe haven,” the diplomat said.

The Obama administration is intent on avoiding a repeat of the swift U.S. departure from the region in 1989, once the Soviet Union had been defeated in Afghanistan. The power vacuum left behind allowed militants to flourish.

In a policy speech in February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that “the United States is not walking away from the region. We will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Our commitment is real and it is enduring.”

‘Fragile and Reversible’

Crocker picked up that refrain and outlined the risks of leaving the region precipitously again. “Progress is still fragile and reversible,” he told the committee.

Remaining challenges include governance and rule of law; corruption that undermines economic growth and the credibility of the Afghan state; the drug trade; sustainable economic development and job creation, as well as the government’s ability to provide basic services like health care and education, Crocker said.

“Failure in some of these areas can mean failure of the state and the creation of an environment in which our strategic enemies can regroup,” he warned senators. “Making progress on these issues has been hard, and it will go on being hard. But hard does not mean hopeless.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE