Ahead of Obama speech, key senator pushes withdrawal

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin says he wants a “significant” reduction of forces in Afghanistan.

As President Obama prepares to unveil his plan to reduce the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, key lawmakers are staking out their positions on how quickly troops can come home-and the White House may soon find itself at odds with one of the leading congressional Democrats on national security issues. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., insists that a "significant" withdrawal of forces, which Obama has vaguely promised since announcing the surge of 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan in December 2009, would mean sending at least 15,000 troops home by the end of the year. By next spring, Levin wants the military to pull out another 15,000 troops, to return the United States' deployed presence in Afghanistan to the pre-surge levels. "Significant means a minimum of 15,000 by the end of this year. That's what, to me, significant means," Levin told reporters on Tuesday. "If it's not significant, it doesn't serve its purpose, which is to make it clear to the Afghan government that the primary responsibility for security needs to be transferred to them." Anything less than a reduction of 15,000 troops by the end of the year, Levin added, sends a "weaker message" to Afghanistan and the "wrong message" to war-weary Americans. President Obama, however, is expected to unveil on Wednesday a "phased withdrawal" plan that would bring one brigade, or about 5,000 troops, home over the summer and begin pulling out a second brigade by the end of the year, National Journal reported on Tuesday. Under that plan, the remaining 20,000 "surge" troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of 2012. Levin said the White House had not yet shared its plans with him, but he would consider a proposal to withdraw 10,000 troops over the next six months to be "inadequate." As for the balance of the surge forces, Levin has already urged the White House to aim for the spring. Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., wants a far more modest reduction than Levin is proposing. McCain said he considers a "modest" plan to be a withdrawal in the range of 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops, but he would not specify whether he meant immediately or by the end of the year. When asked whether he would support returning to pre-surge levels by late 2012, he said it is "reasonable to expect us to have success by the end of 2012." But McCain invoked a phrase that has been used repeatedly by members of both parties and the military alike to give them wiggle room on the war, saying he has "always indicated that it should be conditions-based." While the president's withdrawal plan has become a hot topic inside the Beltway, not everyone is watching the numbers. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he is more concerned about the overall strategy for Afghanistan than the numbers. He said he believes Obama has been intentionally vague on the larger objective. "What I'd like to know is what his strategy is and what his plan is. What's the goal? And I think the goal should be to deny safe haven for terrorist groups," Cornyn said. "That's to me the most important part."