WASHINGTON -- While President Obama has said that U.S. combat forces will begin leaving Afghanistan in July 2011 and be fully out by 2014, the pace of that withdrawal is still up in the air. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is now pressing the administration for a clear redeployment plan so that the American public receives a degree of certainty regarding how much longer the war will last. Her announcement comes on the same day that Gen. David Petraeus will be testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which Gillibrand is a member.
Gillibrand is calling for passage of the Safe and Responsible Redeployment of United States Combat Forces from Afghanistan Act, which would put Congress' backing behind the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces beginning on July 1. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and four other senators, would also require Obama to submit a plan to Congress by July 31 for the phased redeployment of U.S. combat forces, including a completion day.
“America cannot afford an endless war in Afghanistan,” Gillibrand said. “After nearly a decade at war, with still no equal commitment from the Karzai government, and after all the lives we’ve sacrificed and the billions we’ve spent on this war, it’s time to start bringing our troops home. It’s time to put the future and security of Afghanistan in the hands of its own leaders, and focus America’s national security on the emerging and more imminent threats from al Qaeda in other regions.”
In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, provided exclusively to The Huffington Post, Gillibrand also requests a Strategic Redeployment Agreement to establish a 2014 end date for combat operations, based on the model used for pull-out from Iraq.
"I am writing out of consideration for our changing national security challenges, my deep concern about the toll that the war in Afghanistan is taking on our troops and our country, and recognition of [the fact] that the Afghan and Pakistani governments are not taking steps critical to the war effort," she writes in the letter. "I believe a clear combat redeployment agreement would help our efforts in Afghanistan by reinforcing Afghan sovereignty and protecting both the readiness and the flexibility we need to meet the full array of global security challenges that confront our country."
She also raises doubts as to whether the United States is meeting the goals in its three core elements of strategy for Afghanistan that Petraeus has identified, which include "a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan." Gillibrand cites widespread corruption in Afghanistan, possible "serious domestic instability" and the safe havens for terrorists that remain along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Gillibrand is not calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces, as many critics of the war would like to see. But her plan would force the administration to lay out a concrete timeline, which it so far has not done, and officials would then be held accountable for upholding said timeline in the next few years.
Despite officials pointing to 2014 as the targeted end of combat operations, Gates has said that U.S. troops will most likely remain in Afghanistan beyond that date.
"I would say that if the Afghan people and the Afghan government are interested in an ongoing security relationship and some sort of an ongoing security presence -- with the permission of the Afghan government -- the United States, I think, is open to the possibility of having some presence here in terms of training and assistance, perhaps making use of facilities made available to us by the Afghan government for those purposes," said Gates on a recent trip to Afghanistan.
Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who also recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, said that military commanders there told him they expect U.S. troops to be in the country for another 8-10 years.
On Monday, Obama sat down with Gates and Petraeus in a meeting that was closed to reporters and discussed the plan to begin withdrawal in July. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to make an announcement on March 21 regarding the transition of leading security operations to Afghan forces.
A recent poll by Rasmussen found that a majority of likely voters want the U.S. government to set a timetable to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan within one year. Within that group, 31 percent want troops to come home immediately. In September 2010, just 43 percent of likely voters wanted a one-year timeline.
American taxpayers have spent $336 billion to fund the war and another $11 billion for assistance in Afghanistan, with approximately $124 billion more expected to be approved by Congress.
Gillibrand's full letter to Clinton and Gates:
Dear Secretaries Clinton and Gates,
It is my strong view that it is time to negotiate a Strategic Redeployment Agreement with Afghanistan that would mandate a date certain for the withdrawal of all United States combat forces no later than 2014. I am writing out of consideration for our changing national security challenges, my deep concern about the toll that the war in Afghanistan is taking on our troops and our country, and recognition of [the fact] that the Afghan and Pakistani governments are not taking steps critical to the war effort. I believe a clear combat redeployment agreement would help our efforts in Afghanistan by reinforcing Afghan sovereignty and protecting both the readiness and the flexibility we need to meet the full array of global security challenges that confront our country.
I have great confidence in the ability of our troops and the strategic focus of our commanders. The surge in Afghanistan has accomplished some substantial military gains. However, as the President has said, in laying out the strategy for Afghanistan, there are “three core elements of our strategy: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.” Despite our civilian assistance, corruption in Afghanistan remains rife. As the near-collapse of Kabul Bank has demonstrated, corruption undermines Afghanistan’s stability and the support of its people for their government. Without a strong, stable, and effective Afghan government, we risk serious domestic instability that opens the door to a return to control by the Taliban and related organizations of major parts of the country despite a U.S. military commitment. As for Pakistan, while I applaud the sacrifices Pakistan’s military has made in fighting some insurgent groups, al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, and others continue to enjoy safe havens inside Pakistan, near the Pakistani-Afghan border, allowing them to resupply and direct the war in Afghanistan. Insufficient dedication from Kabul and Islamabad undermines our military investment in Afghanistan.
I am also concerned that the drain on our resources in Afghanistan may deteriorate our flexibility to address other global threats. In the past few months, upheavals in the Middle East have posed new challenges for our government as a whole, including the military. Yet, our flexibility of response appears to be compromised in part by our ongoing military involvement in two other Muslim majority countries. Top U.S. intelligence officials have said that Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula is a greater national security challenge than bin Laden. And al Qaeda’s reach appears to be increasingly global – spreading ideology and seeking recruits via the Internet and other methods - not limited to specific contests like the one in Afghanistan. U.S. strategy for countering terrorism needs to be far more nimble, innovative, and global than the troop-heavy counter-insurgency.
What I am suggesting is not to spell out every stage of U.S. troop redeployment from Afghanistan – specific redeployment decisions should be up to commanders on the ground and avoid giving the enemy a potential propaganda tool. Nor should we change the protection for our troops and flexibility for our mission that has been agreed in the U.S.-Afghanistan diplomatic notes exchange and the ISAF-Afghanistan Military Technical Agreement. I do not believe that a withdrawal agreement must necessarily limit our training or counter-terrorism missions, or protection for our civilian development programs. It is critical, however, that we provide for a date certain for withdrawal of our combat forces, in order to give certainty to the American people; to ensure maximum flexibility in responding to other contingencies; and to publicly endorse the Afghan Government’s assumption of lead responsibility as planned.