Republican lawmakers newly elected to Congress are changing the debate in Washington over U.S. policy on Afghanistan.
President Obama often says that Republicans in Congress opposed him at every turn over the last two years. But when it comes to Afghanistan, the situation has always been more complicated than that.
When Obama rolled out his Afghanistan policy at West Point a year ago, Republicans cheered the president when he said that he had "determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan."
But in the same speech, he announced a troop withdrawal date of July 2011. That was a relief to Democrats and worrisome to Republicans. Now that the surge is in place, Republicans have more power in Congress, and the withdrawal date is looming.
"I think the administration did not do itself any service with the declaration of the July 2011 deadline," says Juan Zarate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who worked on counterterrorism and national security in the Bush White House.
"The support for the president will be there, but it will be there to the extent that the president is demonstrating a clear strategy for victory versus anything else that smacks of politicking or artificial deadlines," Zarate says.
That's traditionally been the view of the Republican Party — a view that Sen. John McCain of Arizona reflected Sunday on Meet the Press, saying, "You don't fight and conduct wars that way. You win and then you leave. That's what we've done in Iraq, and the fact is the perception is among friends and enemies alike that we may be leaving."
But there is a new wing in the Republican Party. Many of the newly elected Republicans do not come from the traditional GOP mold, where military funding is a sacred cow. Those with Tea Party backing tend to believe strongly in a smaller federal government, even if that means cutting the military.
Freshman Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky described his views in a campaign video in which he stated, "We have huge budgetary problems, and the Republicans often say, 'Oh, it's just that welfare queen. If she'd just go back to work, we'd balance the budget.' Well, the truth of the matter is if you look at the numbers, there's not enough money just in welfare to balance the budget. You have to look at the entire budget, and about 40 percent of that budget is the military."
To many Democrats who have long opposed the war — including former Rep. Tom Andrews, a Democrat from Maine who is now national director for the Win Without War Coalition — this looks like an opportunity to build a bipartisan alliance. The coalition already has a strategy to contact incoming Republicans who have made campaign statements about cutting the deficit generally or cutting American troop commitments specifically.
"So you combine those two factors — an unpopular war getting increasingly unpopular that is a huge contributor to the deficit problem — and I think you have a formula that is going to drive particularly this new breed of Republican, the Tea Party Republican, into the anti-war camp," Andrews says.
But if that's good news for Democrats, signals from the White House are less so.
Administration officials have always said the pace of withdrawal will depend on conditions on the ground. That hedge is reassuring to Republicans — but not to Democrats like Andrews.
"This open-ended military commitment has to stop," Andrews says. "And despite all the spin you get from inside and outside of the Pentagon, this really is an open-ended military commitment. If you're going to have a conditions-based withdrawal, that is by definition open-ended."
There are moving pieces within the Obama White House, too. The administration's annual review of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy will be finished next month, according to a senior administration official. The official says the findings of that review will set the White House's Afghanistan policy calendar for the first six months of 2011.