Congress' Split On Afghanistan Isn't Along Party Lines

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Fallout is expected on Capitol Hill next week over what appears to be a killing spree by a U.S. soldier that took the lives of 16 civilians in Afghanistan.

With House members returning from a break, top U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. John Allen is set to testify before both the House and Senate armed services committees.

And just as the nation is divided over the war in Afghanistan, so too is Congress.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. is in charge of messaging for the Senate Republicans. Usually, he can be relied on to hammer President Obama's policies, but when it comes to the war in Afghanistan, Thune refuses to seize on the latest atrocity there to go after the president.

"I don't think you can allow ... what was an awful, tragic event — but a random event — [to] influence too much our goals there, and I think the president has said that. [Defense] Secretary [Leon] Panetta has said that, and I don't think there's a lot of disagreement up here," Thune said.

That certainly holds true for some top congressional Republicans.

"The president has a plan to transition this mission over to the Afghan army over the next couple of years," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. said. "I know it's been a very challenging period, but I think we ought to stick with the plan that's been laid out by the administration."

'Political Rhetoric' Divides Republicans

But other leading Republicans fault that plan, which removes 23,000 U.S. troops next year and the 65,000 others by the end of 2014.

"Political timetables based on arbitrary deadlines rather than conditions on the ground is a bad idea and so I'm not satisfied with the administration's proposals," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who claims that Obama is more fixated on his re-election than on success in Afghanistan.

Rick Santorum lobbed similar criticism this week on the presidential campaign trail, and rival Mitt Romney has called for bolstering the U.S. military in general by 100,00 active duty troops.

But on CBS' Face The Nation, Newt Gingrich declared that the time has come for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan.

"I think we need to reconsider the whole region. We need to understand that our being in the middle of countries like Afghanistan is probably counterproductive," Gingrich said. "We're not prepared to be ruthless enough to force them to change, and yet we're clearly an alien presence."

That got Republicans fighting among themselves.

"If all you've got to offer is political rhetoric and you're trying to sort of get a political advantage in a primary or a general election to undercut the plan, shame on you," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "That's not in America's self interest."

Democrats Ready To Leave, But When?

Congressional Democrats, too, are divided. When asked this week about his views on Afghanistan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada stood by the president. "I think that we should stick by what we have," said Reid. "We're drawing down in Afghanistan and we should stick by the timeline."

Still, far more Democrats than Republicans in Congress question the wisdom of prolonging a war that's ground on for more than a decade.

"We should've been out of there a long time ago." said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has twice visited Afghanistan. "It's not a place for us, to be trying to nation-build. We need to come back home, rebuilding America." Manchin is also seeking re-election this fall. "We're not going to change Afghanistan or the Afghan mindset," he said.

Manchin is among two dozen senators, including two Republicans, who signed a letter to Obama last week, which stated: "It is time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan."

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, also signed the letter. "The president wants $88 billion more for next year," he said. "We've already spent about $1.5 trillion total [for] Afghanistan and Iraq."

Baucus said that Congress might not grant Obama's $88-billion Afghan funding request, and said he would vote against that level of funding for the war in Afghanistan.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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