UPDATE (Friday, 9/21): Senator McCain later backed away from these initial remarks, releasing a statement on September 20 in which he explained: “I have said that no option should be taken off the table in such a discussion, including a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops. However, I continue to believe that would be the worst possible course of action.” Read the full statement here.
Senator John McCain, a longtime critic of President Obama’s plan to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014 – he has previously called for an indefinite American presence there — suggested today that the U.S. ought to consider withdrawing even earlier than that. “I think all options ought to be considered, including whether we have to just withdraw early, rather than have a continued bloodletting that won’t succeed,” McCain said.
McCain’s willingness to consider an earlier drawdown date is a major shift, one that reflects just how much NATO’s position in Afghanistan has deteriorated over the past few weeks. McCain has been consistently critical of President Obama for pulling out of Afghanistan too quickly: in February, he stated, “I think it’s very important that we have a strategic agreement with Afghanistan for a long-term U.S. presence here…[B]y the president declaring withdrawal dates before our military commanders recommend it, and increasing the risk, in [the Taliban’s] view, lessens the chances for success of any negotiations.” The senator’s comments today indicate that the recent spike in violence against NATO forces in Afghanistan, and NATO’s subsequent decision to suspend joint operations with Afghan forces, has made doves out of even hawkish Republicans.
Earlier this week, another high-profile Republican hawk, House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair C.W. Bill Young, voiced a similar change of heart on Afghanistan. Young, a self-described “stay-the-course” politician who has thus far always supported keeping troops in Afghanistan, told the Tampa Bay Times yesterday that “we should remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can.”
Describing the situation in Afghanistan as a “real mess,” Young, the longest-serving House Republican, explained that a letter from late Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton helped him to change his mind on the issue. Sitton, who was stationed in Kandahar province, died last month at the age of 26. Before his death, he wrote to Young detailing a number of problems with the way the Afghanistan war was being managed. He “told me some things I found hard to believe,” said Young.
Rep. Young and Senator McCain are just two high-ranking Republicans who have expressed willingness to consider an accelerated withdrawal – along with Clint Eastwood, whose somewhat garbled RNC convention speech included some criticism of Obama’s Afghanistan withdrawal timeline. But there is reason to believe that many of Young and McCain’s colleagues share their view: Rep. Young told the Tampa Bay Times that many other Congressional Republicans privately agree with him on Afghanistan, but “tend not to want to go public” with their opinions. It remains to be seen whether any of these doubters will come out in favor of a quicker withdrawal in the coming weeks.
To read more about NATO’s troubles in Afghanistan, read The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran on the Taliban’s new strategy, or Time’s Mark Thompson interviewing Ben Anderson, author of a new book detailing the distressing lack of progress that American and British troops have made.