(CNSNews.com) – Two conservative Republican senators with tea party ties joined 21 Democratic colleagues and an independent senator Wednesday in urging President Obama to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan.
Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) signed a letter encouraging the president “to take every possible step to end the large scale combat operations in Afghanistan and transition our effort to a targeted counterterrorism strategy.”
“A majority of Americans worry that the costs of the war in Afghanistan will make it more difficult for the government to address the problems facing the United States at home,” the senators wrote. “They’re right.”
Apart from Paul and Lee, the letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Al Franken (Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Herb Kohl (Wisc.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.); and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
The letter cited comments made by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on February 1, to the effect that the U.S. goal was to move its troops in Afghanistan “from a combat role to a training, advice and assist role” by mid- to late-2013.
“Although we would prefer a more rapid reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the statement made by the Secretary is a positive step towards ending the decade long war,” the senators wrote.
They argued that America’s objectives for intervening in Afghanistan – to remove the Taliban regime, destroy al-Qaeda’s safe haven and pursue the planners of the 9/11 attacks – “have largely been met.”
“We should continue to confront America’s enemies wherever they are through targeted counterterrorism operations and end the large scale counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan.”
The senators made a financial case for a speedy withdrawal.
“We are spending roughly $10 billion in Afghanistan each month at a time when we’re making tough sacrifices at home,” they wrote. “Your recent budget calls for $88 billion more for the war in Afghanistan in 2013. If this money is appropriated, we will have spent a total of $650 billion in Afghanistan.”
The senators told Obama that they look forward to reviewing the administration’s report to Congress, required under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, on benchmarks relating to the transition to Afghan forces leading security operations in their country.
“In light of the comments made by Secretary Panetta on February 1st, we would also be interested in learning more about how quickly U.S. troops will be coming home, the number and purpose of troops that might remain in Afghanistan and for how long a period, and the costs and savings of accelerating the completion of combat operations,” they said.
“Nonetheless, we welcome his announcement and encourage you to take every possible step to end the large scale combat operations in Afghanistan and transition our effort to a targeted counterterrorism strategy.”
At the time Panetta made the comments – to reporters en route to a NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels – the Obama administration sought to play down the idea that they marked a policy shift.
“What Secretary Panetta said is that it could happen that the transition to Afghan security lead could be moved up to 2013,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told a briefing the following day. “But he was not making an announcement about a decision that had been made, simply about the consultations that would be taking place in Brussels and from Brussels forward to Chicago.”
Obama is due to host a NATO leaders’ summit in Chicago in May.