The United States Senate has voted overwhelmingly for an accelerated withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan after more than a decade of fighting, reflecting the wishes of a war-weary nation.
Thursday’s bipartisan vote of 62-33 sends a clear message to President Barack Obama and the military as they engage in high-stakes talks about the pace of drawing down the 66,000 US troops there.
While the senators talk about the withdrawal, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said the US needs to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 because al-Qaeda is still present in the country.
Panetta told a Pentagon news conference that the US should have an enduring presence” in Afghanistan to accomplish three missions, including targeting “terrorists” to prevent al-Qaeda from returning in large numbers.
“Although we clearly have had an impact on (al-Qaeda’s) presence in Afghanistan, the fact is that they continue to show up,” Panetta said.
“And intelligence continues to indicate that they are looking for some kind of capability to be able to go into Afghanistan as well.”
Panetta would not say how many American troops he thinks will be needed to conduct that mission, nor did he mention a time period.
The other two post-2014 missions cited by Panetta are training Afghan security forces and providing support for the US military contingent there.
But Jeffrey Dressler, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said looking only at al-aeda fighters – as opposed to those who ally with them – carried enormous risks.
“I think the mistake that we’ve made all along is too narrowly defining the threat,” Dressler said.
President Obama is expected to make an announcement on the withdrawal of troops within weeks.
Longest war in US history
Although the Senate vote was on a nonbinding amendment to a defence policy bill, its significance could not be discounted.
Senator Jeff Merkley, the chief sponsor, argued that al-Qaeda is stronger in other parts of the world and that nation-building in Afghanistan has gone off track.
Merkley’s measure endorsed Obama’s timetable to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2014 but pressed for a quicker pace, without specifying how that would be achieved.
“It is time to end this war, end the longest war in United States history,” Merkley said.
The Senate hopes to wrap up its version of the bill by week’s end. It then would have to be reconciled with the legislation the House passed in May.
The House bill calls for Obama to maintain a force of at least 68,000 troops through the end of 2014.
New US Commander
Also on Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved Obama’s choice to be the top military commander in Afghanistan.
The panel cleared the way for the full Senate to vote on General Joseph Dunford, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps who had directed combat forces in Iraq.
Dunford would replace General John Allen, the current commander in Afghanistan who has been nominated to take charge in Europe.
Allen’s nomination is on hold as he’s ensnared in the sex scandal that led to the recent resignation of CIA director David Petraeus.