As the Obama administration continues grinding toward a withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, one group from Congress is renewing its long-standing call for a quicker exit: the Bay Area delegation.
Last month's burning of Qurans by U.S. troops and Sunday's massacre of 16 Afghan civilians -- including nine children -- in Kandahar Province reportedly by a rogue U.S. Army staff sergeant have only made a bad situation worse, they say.
"I've said for the last two and a half years I've been in Congress, and before that, that we need to get out very quickly and we need to do so by negotiating with all the various factions ... to achieve a political understanding," Rep. John Garamendi, a House Armed Services Committee member, said Tuesday. "We ought to continue to push forward very aggressively for those negotiations regardless of this situation."
Having long urged a speedier pullout, Bay Area Democrats now find some unlikely allies on Afghanistan: Republicans running for president. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum suggested this week that President Barack Obama's timetable might be too long, and Ron Paul has been urging withdrawal for years.
The debate over an accelerated timetable is even growing among Obama's own staffers. But after his major troop buildup gave way to a gradual homecoming last year, the president insisted again Tuesday that the Kandahar massacre will not push him into "a rush for the exits."
Garamendi said time is of the essence because "there's no doubt that every day we're in Afghanistan carries the potential for something bad to happen." An event like the massacre "does change the relative weight in the negotiations," he said: "The power position of the United States diminishes with each of these incidents. We certainly lose the moral high ground. ... The longer we're there, the less we have."
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, said she believes an accelerated withdrawal at this point has less to do with U.S. politics than "with the Afghan people kicking us out."
"It's a tragic situation on so many levels," she said, requiring soul-searching not only about the civilian lives lost but about the pressures that would drive a soldier to do such a thing. "We should certainly expedite our retreat, and it is a retreat. I don't think you can describe this as anything less than a failure."
Sen. Barbara Boxer a year ago called for an accelerated reduction in troops.
"These tragic recent events show once again why we must bring America's longest war to a close," she said Tuesday. "It is time for the Afghan people to determine the kind of future they want -- and it must be one in which they are responsible for their own security."
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, who cast the lone vote against the 2001 use-of-force resolution that began the Afghanistan War, said polls show most Americans support a speedier withdrawal than the president's plan.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll conducted March 7 to 10 -- before Sunday's massacre -- found 60 percent of U.S. adults believe the war hasn't been worth fighting, considering its costs versus its benefits. More than half -- 54 percent -- believe the United States should withdraw its troops even if the Afghan army isn't adequately trained, and 55 percent believe most Afghans oppose what the United States is trying to do there.
"I've always said there is no military solution in Afghanistan," Lee said Tuesday.
Her bill, HR 780, would require that all further military funding for Afghanistan be used only for a safe and orderly withdrawal of all troops and contractors; the bill's 67 co-sponsors include seven other Bay Area members.
Lee expects recent events will draw more co-sponsors, and she said Democrats will soon convene hearings on what a military morass the war has become. "The quicker we get out, the quicker we can get to a real political solution, or at least get diplomacy back on the radar and get people to the table to discuss the issues."
Allen Weiner, co-director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation, said the president has "a tremendous amount of authority to control the deployment of the military" once Congress has authorized it, although Congress still holds the purse strings.
Yet even if lawmakers who want a faster withdrawal can't muster enough votes to have their way with the budget, he said, the broader question is "at what point does it become a huge problem for the president politically to be waging a war if it doesn't seem to have the support either of the American Congress or the American public ... especially in an election year."
Weiner noted there have been "some significant successes" both in military terms and in improving Afghanistan's political atmosphere. It's hard to remain engaged from a distance, he said.
"This is a terrible, terrible string of events and it may be as we have more and more troops engaged in more and more deployments ... the risk of these kinds of incidents accelerates," Weiner said. "But if we weren't there, there would be no negotiations -- the Taliban would fight and win, and we'd be back to where we were in 2001."
HR 780 (Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland): It requires that all further military funding for Afghanistan be used only for a safe and orderly withdrawal of all troops and contractors.
H.Con.Res. 28 (Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio): It would have directed President Barack Obama to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2011's end.
HR 1735 (Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass.): It requires the president to give Congress within 60 days a timetable and completion date for withdrawal.
H.AMDT. 526 (Amendment to HR 2219, National Defense Authorization Act (Garamendi): It would have cut troop levels to 25,000 by the end of 2012.
H.AMDT. 525 to HR 2219, National Defense Authorization Act (Lee): It would have cut all funding for combat except for safe and orderly return of all U.S. forces.