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US Lawmakers Debate Afghanistan Ahead of Obama Speech

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 16, 2011 (file photo)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 16, 2011 (file photo)
Michael Bowman

Hours before President Barack Obama's address on the future of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan, lawmakers in Washington passionately debated the costs and benefits of a war that has lasted nearly 10 years.

Polls show Americans increasingly weary and disillusioned about the war in Afghanistan. Many of their representatives on Capitol Hill say they, too, are fatigued and frustrated.

"I implore the president: end the war, bring our troops home," noted Democratic Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey of California who took to the House floor with a message for President Obama.  "This must not be a token withdrawal. How many more lives have to be destroyed, how many more Americans have to leave limbs behind in Afghanistan, and how many more billions in taxpayer money do we have to waste?"

That sentiment is not limited to Democrats. Republican Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina urged the United States to declare victory in Afghanistan and end the war.

"Bring the troops home," said Jones.  "History has proven you will never change Afghanistan. They [Afghans] do not want to change themselves. Quite frankly, the Taliban are Afghan people. It is a civil war."

An Army carry team carries the transfer cases containing the remains of Army Spc. Scott D. Smith of Indianapolis, Indiana upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware on June 21, 2011.
An Army carry team carries the transfer cases containing the remains of Army Spc. Scott D. Smith of Indianapolis, Indiana upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware on June 21, 2011.

House Speaker John Boehner told reporters he understands public sentiment on the matter.

"The American people are weary about Afghanistan," said Boehner.  "You cannot blame them. You have 100,000 of our men and women fighting in this desert over there. But remember why we are there. We are there because the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan. They had provided a safe haven to al Qaida. The goal here is to make sure they do not have that safe haven."

Boehner added that, having invested so much in Afghanistan, the United States should not jeopardize gains made in the country.

The chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, reminded fellow-lawmakers of the hidden costs of war.

"With all the talk about troop levels, I want to make sure that we remember this is not just about numbers," said Murray.  "It is about real people with real families. We all hear about how expensive war is while we are fighting it. But for so many of our servicemembers, what happens on the battlefield is just the beginning. We are seeing suicide rates that are much higher among active-duty servicemembers and veterans than among civilians. We are watching as these men and women are sent out on tour after tour. Too often, they are having a tough time finding a job when they come home."

The tough economy and America's fiscal woes were clearly on the mind of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia when he spoke late Tuesday.

"We can no longer have it all," said Manchin.  "The question the president faces is quite simple. Will we choose to rebuild America or Afghanistan? In light of our nation's fiscal perils, we cannot do both."

Manchin's comments drew a swift rebuke from Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.

"We withdrew from Afghanistan onetime [after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989]. And the Taliban came, followed by al Qaida, followed by attacks on the United States of America. If we leave Afghanistan in defeat, we will repeat the lessons of history," added Manchin.

From the beginning of his administration, President Obama has promised to listen to his commanders when making decisions about America's foreign military commitments. House Speaker Boehner counseled the president to continue that practice when it comes to Afghanistan.

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