House rejects pullout from Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly rejected a measure calling for President Barack Obama to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan, in an election-year test of his decision to escalate the war.

Two helicopters escorting U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates take off after a visit to Camp Black Horse where the Afghan National Army (ANA) receive training in Kabul March 10, 2010. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

But dozens of Obama’s Democrats in the House did support the pullout resolution, indicating division over war policy ahead of November congressional elections in which Republicans are expected to make gains.

Sixty-five lawmakers, most of them Democrats, voted for the pullout resolution written by liberal Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich, while 356 voted against.

It was the first challenge by the Democratic majority in Congress to U.S. involvement in the conflict since Obama ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and an offensive began last month to retake the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Helmand province.

Supporters of the resolution said it was time for U.S. lawmakers to consider if they wanted to continue the nearly nine-year-old war in which about 1,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent.

“Unless this Congress acts to claim its constitutional responsibility, we will stay in Afghanistan for a very, very long time at great cost to our troops and to our national priorities,” Kucinich said.

Detractors argued the United States could not withdraw from Afghanistan before the government there was able to provide security because the Taliban could then provide safe haven for al Qaeda once again.

“I’m keenly aware that even if we remain in Afghanistan -- and here I want to emphasize this -- there’s no guarantee that we will prevail in our fight against al Qaeda. But if we don’t try, we are guaranteed to fail,” said Representative Howard Berman, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congress passed a resolution authorizing military force in Afghanistan in 2001 after the September 11 attacks by al Qaeda on the United States. But Kucinich said the 2001 vote was not intended to endorse unending war at an ever-rising price.

Aware that many liberal Democrats are unhappy about the continuing war, Obama has said the plan is to start pulling U.S. forces from Afghanistan from July 2011.

Editing by John O’Callaghan