US Senate pushes to hurry up Afghanistan pullout

WASHINGTON Wed Nov 30, 2011 9:07pm EST

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WASHINGTON Nov 30 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted on Wednesday to require President Barack Obama to devise a plan for expediting the pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, signaling growing impatience in Congress.

Obama in June called for about a third of U.S. forces, or 33,000 troops, to leave Afghanistan by the end of next summer. The remaining 66,000 U.S. troops are to be slowly withdrawn until a final transition to Afghan security control in 2014.

The Democratic-controlled Senate's vote for accelerating that drawdown came on an amendment to an annual defense bill, but the chances of the requirement becoming law are slim.

A similar demand for an accelerated transition of military operations from U.S. to Afghan authorities was narrowly defeated in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in May.

The sponsor of the version that passed the Senate on Wednesday, Democrat Jeff Merkley, said the chamber's vote was above all a message to the Democratic president that it was time to end the U.S. combat role.

"Our American forces have successfully pursued the two main goals set when we went to Afghanistan: stamping out the al Qaeda training camps and hunting down and bringing to justice those responsible for 9/11," Merkley said in a statement, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

"It is time to bring our men and women home. The U.S. Senate sent that message to the President today in unequivocal terms," Merkley said.

The amendment passed on a voice vote. Republican John McCain, who opposed it, declared that senior U.S. military commanders were already uncomfortable with the drawdown Obama announced in June, and said stepping it up would be "reckless and wrong."

The Senate vote came as U.S. lawmakers continued to look for ways to cut government spending and rein in massive budget deficits. Unease in Washington over the decade-long war in Afghanistan has escalated amid rising worries about tight budgets and high unemployment.

During debate on the amendment, Merkley said the conflict in Afghanistan had cost the United States nearly a half-trillion dollars, and that it was time to "bring our troops and our tax dollars home".

His amendment had 20 co-sponsors in the 100-member Senate, including two Republicans - Mike Lee and Rand Paul, both members of the chamber's conservative Tea Party caucus.

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