Obama administration officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill will consider bringing U.S. forces out of Afghanistan faster amid new and deep tensions between the two nations, says Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee.
"There is a general concern...about recent events and how they affect the draw down plan," Levin told reporters Tuesday. "The American people are generally concerned," the Michigan Democrat said, adding "they instinctively want a faster draw down."
The military is moving forward with the second phase of President Obama's two-pronged draw down plan. The Pentagon moved 10,000 troops out of the war-torn nation last year, and the remaining 20,000 are due out by the end of September. Removing those troops will essentially undo the 30,000 soldiers Obama "surged" into Afghanistan in 2009. The president intends to remove most American forces by the end of 2014.
Pentagon officials have floated the notion of slowing the draw down after September, aiming to leave American commanders with as many troops as possible for as long as possible. Officials say this will be necessary to capitalize on progress made since the 2009 surge.
"We are still at war in Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Budget Committee Tuesday. He said, under the administration's current plan, U.S. forces will remain there until "the end of 2014."
But Levin said that might change after last week, when U.S. military personnel burned copies of the Koran and other Islamic holy documents—allegedly by mistake—and the reactions that spawned. The burning incident was followed up by Afghan retaliation, including the deaths of four American military members. Nearly 20,000 Afghans have taken part in sometimes-violent protests since Friday, according to Pentagon estimates.
Those events make the military's desire to slow the draw down's pace "less sustainable," Levin said, telling reporters he is confident there will be increased support in Congress—from members of both parties—"to draw down faster."
Though some Republican lawmakers remain hawkish about the Afghanistan mission, Levin said "they will be on the opposite side of the American people" if they oppose a speedier troop withdrawal.
One GOP opponent of a faster U.S. exit would be South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. He told U.S. News & World Report on Tuesday that the events spawned by the Koran burning "have made me more committed" because "now we see what happens if it doesn't end well."
"And I think it can end well," Graham says.
To that end, experts told DOTMIL Monday that the Koran burning might be the beginning of the end for America in Afghanistan. As Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, says: "This might end up being more of a 'straw that broke the camel's back' situation. Afghans are saying, 'On top of everything else, you burned our holy book?!'"
Several sources say State Department officials—joined by some inside the White House—are concerned anew about the state of the war and the prospects for something resembling a clear American victory.