Lawmakers slam Afghan war as defense funding debate begins
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Condemning the war in Afghanistan as a waste of lives and money, U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday debated whether to approve $608 billion in defense spending next year.
A string of war-weary lawmakers from both parties in the House of Representatives expressed anger with corruption in the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, skepticism about any lasting progress toward resolving the conflict and exhaustion over the unending cost in lives and treasure.
"I cannot continue to support legislation that sends billions and billions and billions of dollars to Afghanistan," said Republican Representative Walter Jones, whose district in North Carolina includes Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine Corps base on the U.S. East Coast.
"I have signed over 10,474 letters to families who have lost loved ones since we were lied to go into Iraq," Jones added. "It is time that the Congress listen to 72 percent of the American people who say: bring our troops home now, not later."
Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who fought with the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation forces during a visit to Afghanistan in the 1980s, said the U.S.-led war was like a "Twilight Zone episode" and "the longer we stay there, the more enemies we're going to make."
"Osama bin Laden is dead. The Taliban were cleared from Afghanistan years ago," he said. "So it's time for us to declare victory and bring our troops home."
Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, said the nation-building policy adopted by the United States in Afghanistan would be "seen through the lens of history as about as effective as trench warfare in World War One."
"You need an ally that's going to be a partner with you. The Karzai government is corrupt," Welch said. "So the question becomes, at what point do we step back."
It was unclear what impact the war opposition would have on the final outcome of the defense appropriations package. Some lawmakers said they would propose amendments in an effort to force action, but most remarks came in general debate and were not tied to efforts to alter the bill.
Debate on the measure was expected to continue through Friday. The final version will have to be reconciled with a similar Senate bill before it can be sent to Obama to sign into law. It is not clear when the Senate will take up its defense bill.
The House legislation would appropriate $519 billion in base Pentagon funding for the 2013 fiscal year beginning in October. Officials said the amount was $1.1 billion more than approved last year and $3 billion more than Obama requested in the budget he sent to Congress.
The measure also included an additional $88.5 billion for the Afghanistan war and other overseas operations. The Obama administration has threatened to veto the measure by the Republican-dominated House because it violates spending caps set last year in an effort to reduce government spending.
Congress has ordered the Pentagon to cut projected defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade.
The Pentagon proposed a new military strategy in January that calls for a shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific region. It unveiled a budget in February that would cut defense spending for the first time in nearly a decade while supporting the new strategy.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that the spending plan, which would cancel some weapons programs and cut back on the size of the military, is finely balanced and changes by Congress could make it difficult to carry out the new strategy.
In early debate on the funding bill, Democratic Representative Betty McCollum sought to cut $188 million in spending on military bands. The military has about 5,000 musicians in 140 different bands.
Opponents of the measure said band members undergo basic training as soldiers and most of the funding is for salaries, so the majority of the reduction would come out of the military's personnel accounts. The measure failed a voice vote but still has to undergo a final roll-call vote.
McCollum and Representative Jack Kingston also are pushing an amendment to block $72.3 million in military spending on sporting events. The spending is part of the Pentagon's marketing effort to recruit new service members for the all-volunteer force. The amendment is awaiting a final vote.
Lawmakers sought to cut nearly $1 billion in spending for a Navy destroyer, a move that is also awaiting a final roll-call vote.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)