Senate Backs Accelerated End To Combat Missions, Continued Drawdown of US Troops In Afghanistan

Yesterday, an overwhelming majority (62-33) of US Senators—including every Senator who caucuses with the Democrats save two—voted in favor of a measure that calls upon President Obama to continue withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan at a steady pace, as he promised in his address to the nation in June 2011. The "sense of the Senate", which was introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), also calls upon President Obama to end all regular US combat missions in Afghanistan no later than December 31, 2014, and to "take all possible steps" to end such operations earlier.

Why is this vote significant? At present, there is no timetable for removing the 68,000 US troops that remain in Afghanistan. President Obama does not plan to announce such a timetable until after his administration has decided how many troops to leave in Afghanistan post-2014. This decision is expected to happen within the next few weeks, which means that a decision on a drawdown timetable for 2013-2014 may also be imminent.

As previously noted, President Obama promised to continue withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan "at a steady pace" until the end of 2014. But some have been pressuring the President to hold off on any further troop redeployments. General John Allen, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, is reportedly pushing for over 60,000 troops to remain in Afghanistan until the fall of 2013 at the least. And earlier this year, the House included a provision in the National Defense Authorization (NDAA) calling on the President to keep all 68,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan through 2014. The Senate measure is an amendment to the same piece of legislation, thus contradicting the House's language.

US public opinion is clearly against prolonging the war in Afghanistan any further. A March 2012 Gallop poll reported 50% of Americans in favor of withdrawing all US troops before 2014, with an additional 24% favoring a full withdrawal by the end of 2014. An October 2012 Pew poll found an even greater majority in favor of an accelerated withdrawal: 60% of Americans said they wanted US troops removed from Afghanistan as soon as possible, while only 35% support leaving US troops there "until the situation stabilizes."

Yesterday's Senate vote is significant not only because it reaffirms President Obama's original promise on withdrawing troops, but also because a vote by a body of the US Congress reflects US public opinion on a matter of foreign policy, something that is quite rare today. Even the vote tally, 62-33, is very close to the split found in October's Pew poll of 60-35. This is a win for US public opinion, and a strong message to President Obama that a slow withdrawal from Afghanistan is politically unpopular.

To learn more about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, visit our Countdown to Drawdown.

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