Editorial: House sends message on Afghanistan
It didn't get much notice, but last week the U.S. House of Representatives came within a dozen votes of telling the administration to get us out of Afghanistan.
Last year, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, got 162 votes for his resolution calling for a timetable to be set for the withdrawal of troops. This time 26 Republicans joined with all but eight Democrats and McGovern's amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill fell just short, 204-215. Even McGovern was surprised at how close he came.
That's a strong message to the president, and it comes at an important time. The administration is going through a periodic review of Afghanistan policy. U.S. troops are supposed to start coming home in July, and that's when President Barack Obama is set to announce the pace of the withdrawal. So you can be sure there's a debate raging in the White House.
The generals want more time. They are pointing to success in Helmand Province and a few other places, with seasoned observers reporting that the long disrespected Afghan security forces are performing well in response to U.S. training. The Taliban's spring offensive, officials say, hasn't resulted in the loss of any coalition-controlled territory.
The military makes the case for staying through 2014 and longer, if necessary, to see that the Afghan government is secure.
Others have less patience with the nation-building process. Osama bin Laden is dead, al-Qaida isn't in Afghanistan anymore. The Taliban, while extremist in philosophy and brutal to Afghans, never attacked America - no Afghans participated in the 9/11 attacks, as far as is known.
And while many Americans would like to see a more stable, modern Afghanistan, one that could never again host a terrorist organization like al-Qaida, there is a limit to how much they are willing to invest in such a historically difficult project. At a time of record deficits, the U.S. is spending $300 million every day in Afghanistan, and it is far from clear we are getting our money's worth.
So pressure is growing for an accelerated withdrawal, with a negotiated deal between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, with trainers and counter-terrorism teams staying longer in a small footprint. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that with bin Laden dead, the strategy could change.
While Obama has always described Afghanistan as a war worth fighting, he has anguished over exactly how to fight it, with his advisers divided between those who want to get out quickly and those preferring a deeper, open-ended commitment.
Led by McGovern, the House has now come down firmly on the side of sooner, not later. That message may not have cracked the front page of most newspapers, but we hope it was heard in the White House.
The MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News