Afghan Draw-Down Debate Doesn't Follow Party Lines

U.S. troops are scheduled to begin leaving Afghanistan next month. In Washington D.C., officials are still discussing how quickly to bring those troops home.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Steve Inskeep, who's been reporting from Pakistan.

July is just around the corner. That's when American troops are scheduled to begin leaving Afghanistan. In Washington, officials are still discussing how quickly to bring those troops home.

And as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the debate does not divide neatly along party lines.

ARI SHAPIRO: Here at the White House yesterday morning, the president chaired his monthly meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was not there in person. He's on a farewell tour of Afghanistan, where on Sunday he made his views on the withdrawals clear. If someone has to come home in July, Gates said it should not be the guys with guns.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): I would look for support people that we no longer need. You know, we've done a lot of construction - maybe those people aren't needed. I'd try to maximize my combat capability as long as this process goes on.

SHAPIRO: Some leaders in the president's party advocate a very different approach. They want the U.S. presence to shrink quickly.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, New York, Chairman, Armed Services Committee): It ought to be a significant reduction.

SHAPIRO: Senator Carl Levin chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sen. LEVIN: Our being there in large numbers is a target for them. It's propaganda fodder for them.

SHAPIRO: Levin's Republican counterpart on the Armed Services Committee, John McCain, disagrees. He said yesterday, he hopes the July troop drawdown is very small.

But McCain's Republican Party is no more unified on this issue than the Democrats. During the first Republican presidential debate last month in South Carolina, the audience cheered Congressman Ron Paul when he argued that the death of Osama bin Laden means it's time to leave Afghanistan.

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): Now that he's killed, boy, it is a wonderful time for this country, now, to reassess it and get the troops out of Afghanistan and end that war that hasn't helped us and hasn't helped anybody in the Middle East.

SHAPIRO: That's not a new position for Paul, but he used to be an outsider on this issue in his party. And today, his view is more mainstream.

The Afghan war costs the U.S. about $2 billion a week. In New Hampshire, Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman said that's not the best use of American dollars.

Mr. JON HUNTSMAN (Republican, Utah, Former Governor): The best foreign policy for our country, at this point in time, is to focus right on cleaning up our own home - right here.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately this decision will be made by the commander-in-chief alone. And White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday, cost will not be a significant factor in making that decision. Instead, he says the president will decide based on whether Afghanistan is stable and whether al-Qaida has been defeated.

Mr. JAY CARNEY (Press Secretary, White House): The president has not received yet a recommendation from his commanders or the secretary of defense for a troop drawdown figure. That will obviously be a decision he makes relatively soon.

SHAPIRO: Carney said it will be a real drawdown. And Mr. Obama said, in an interview, that it will be a summer of transition. But neither man was specific about the numbers.

Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution says the Obama White House has had this debate twice before.

Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution): At the beginning of Obama's term, when I chaired the strategic review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. And then at the end of 2009, when he made the decision to send in an additional 30,000 troops. And in many ways, I think the third round of the debate will be very identical to those earlier rounds.

SHAPIRO: That would suggest a slower withdrawal.

Riedel says one big American military concern is keeping allies in the fight -they make up about a third of the forces in Afghanistan. And Riedel says the Europeans are looking for an excuse to leave and focus on the fight in Libya.

Mr. RIEDEL: So that for every American soldier who's pulled out of Afghanistan, you could see one or maybe two Europeans pulled out of Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: In polls, Americans consistently oppose the U.S presence in Afghanistan. But that was true even two years ago, when the president decided to increase the U.S. presence there.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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