Washington: The US Senate voted overwhelmingly for an accelerated withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan after more than a decade of fighting, reflecting the wishes of a war-weary nation.
The strong bipartisan vote of 62-33 sends a clear message to President Barack Obama and the military as they engage in high-stakes talks about the pace of drawing down the 66,000 US troops there, with a White House announcement expected within weeks.
Although the vote was on a nonbinding amendment to a defense policy bill, its significance could not be discounted. Sen Jeff Merkley, the chief sponsor, argued that al-Qaeda is stronger in other parts of the world and that nation-building in Afghanistan has gone off track.
His measure endorsed Obama's timetable to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2014 but pressed for a quicker pace, without specifying how that would be achieved.
"It is time to end this war, end the longest war in United States history," Merkley said. The Senate hopes to wrap up its version of the bill by
week's end. It then would have to be reconciled with the legislation the House passed in May. The House bill calls for Obama to maintain a force of at least 68,000 troops through the end of 2014.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday the US will need to keep troops in Afghanistan even after the combat mission ends because al-Qaeda is still present in the country and is trying to strengthen its influence.
Panetta would not say how many American troops he thinks will be needed to conduct that mission, nor did he mention a time period. "The goal here is an enduring presence therefore that will direct itself toward three important missions.
One is obviously counterterrorism, to ensure that we continue to go
after whatever al-Qaeda targets remain in Afghanistan," Panetta told reporters at a Pentagon news conference. He added that the United States also will have to train and assist the Afghan forces while providing support.
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