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House rejects quick drawdown from Afghanistan

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/ Source: The Associated Press

The House overwhelmingly rejected a resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by year's end as Republicans and Democrats joined together in embracing President Barack Obama's long-term war strategy.

The vote was 321-93 with one member voting present, a show of bipartisanship on national security and a referendum on the president's policy after last year's troop buildup.

"We need to stand with our commander in chief. We need to stand with our troops and complete this task," Republican Rep. Chris Gibson of New York, a freshman who did four Army combat tours in Iraq, said during the forceful debate.

A resolution expresses lawmakers' opinions but has no legal effect. Although this one had failed in the past and failed again, the debate provided a measure of Congress' impatience with the war in the face of increasing budget pressure and growing public opposition reflected in recent opinion polls.

A similar resolution failed in the House last March on a vote of 356-65, and both sides were closely watching Thursday's vote to gauge the gains among the resolution's proponents.

During Thursday's debate, lawmakers had warned that passage of the resolution would have dire consequences in the fight against terrorism and put the nation at risk of another 9/11 strike.

"Withdrawing before completing our mission would reinforce extremist propaganda that Americans are weak and unreliable allies and facilitate extremist recruiting and future attacks," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

This week, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan echoed that warning, saying passage of the resolution would be hailed by the Taliban and al-Qaida as a victory.

"We do not want the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies back in charge of Afghanistan or any significant part of Afghanistan from which they could plot attacks against us as they are still trying to do in the parts of Pakistan they're in," said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

Top leaders in the House were determined to keep the resolution's proponents from making inroads with the freshman class of 87 Republicans and nine Democrats, pressing them to vote against the measure.

Army Gen. David Petraeus told Congress that the war is turning around and the United States is on track to begin drawing down troops in July. The timeline calls for ending U.S. and NATO combat operations by the end of 2014.

The resolution and its chief sponsors — Reps. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Ron Paul, R-Texas — argue that's not fast enough. The resolution called for Obama to withdraw U.S. forces no later than Dec. 31, 2011.

Kucinich, at the opening of the debate, said the country is spending $100 billion a year on a war that could last another 10 years. "Are we willing to spend another trillion dollars on a war that doesn't have any exit plan?" he asked.

Speaking directly to his budget-conscious colleagues, Kucinich said, "You want to cut out waste. Let's get out of Afghanistan."

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Petraeus called the resolution a mistake that would do serious harm to U.S. national security interests, the coalition of 48 countries contributing military personnel and U.S. forces.

"The Taliban and al-Qaida obviously would trumpet this as a victory, as a success," Petraeus said. "Needless to say, it would completely undermine everything that our troopers have fought so much for and sacrificed so much for."

The U.S. has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and its international partners have about 40,000.

The resolution came after Petraeus spent two days testifying on Capitol Hill, seeking to build political support for the costly war that has dragged on for nearly 10 years. A Washington Post-ABC News poll out this week found that nearly two-thirds of Americans say the war is not worth fighting.

Petraeus said Wednesday the initial wave of troop withdrawals in July will probably include combat as well as non-combat forces. He mentioned no numbers, nor did he identify which combat units might be pulled out to begin what Obama has called a responsible winding down of the war by 2014.

It is widely expected that a large share — if not the majority — of those initial American withdrawals will be support forces, such as logistics specialists who helped in last year's U.S. troop buildup. Petraeus has said he foresees a tough combat season ahead this spring and summer.

The general said that in formulating his recommendation to Obama he will take into account several factors, including the capabilities of Afghan security forces, progress in improving the Afghan government's ability to deliver basic services, and the extent to which ordinary Afghans see their government as legitimate.