Commentary

Specter v. Sestak: Who's the Real Democrat on Afghanistan?

Yesterday, an organization that lobbies on peace issues asked me to contribute money in the upcoming Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary between Senator Arlen Specter and his challenger, Representative Joe Sestak. I'm ready to donate. But first I need a key piece of information: which candidate will act to end the war in Afghanistan?

Both candidates are currently serving in Congress, so we can compare their records. Last year, Senator Specter strongly opposed sending more troops to Afghanistan, while Representative Sestak strongly supported sending more troops.

But now the troops are on their way, and the key question facing Members of Congress right now on the Afghanistan war is this: who supports establishing a timetable for military withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Whichever one comes out first saying that they support a timetable for withdrawal, that candidate will get my donation. Perhaps the candidates will address this in tomorrow's debate.

But even if the issue is not addressed during tomorrow's debate, there is a straightforward means to test which is the Afghanistan peace candidate: who will be the first to co-sponsor the Feingold-McGovern bill, which would require the President to establish a timetable for military withdrawal from Afghanistan?

The support of either one would give this effort a major boost.

McGovern's House bill, H.R. 5015, currently has 63 co-sponsors, but not a single one of them is from the great state of Pennsylvania. Yet there are 6 co-sponsors from neighboring New York, three co-sponsors from New Jersey, one from Maryland, and two from Ohio. Representative Sestak would be a great addition to this list.

A Year of War Would Pay for Local Jobs Bill

Sometime between now and Memorial Day, the House is expected to consider $33 billion more for war in Afghanistan. This "war supplemental" is largely intended to plug the hole in Afghanistan war spending for the current fiscal year caused by the ongoing addition of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, whose purpose is largely to conduct a military offensive in Kandahar that 94% of the people there say they don't want, preferring peace negotiations with the Taliban instead.

Of course, by itself the number $33 billion is totally meaningless. To make it meaningful, we need to compare it to something - what else could we do with $33 billion?

A recent missive from the AFL-CIO gives a compelling answer: we could use $33 billion to put America back to work:

 

If the Local Jobs for America Act (H.R. 4812) becomes law, it will create or save more than 675,000 local community jobs and more than 250,000 education jobs, according to the latest estimates from the House Education and Labor Committee.

According to the House Education and Labor Committee, the bill includes $75 billion over two years for local communities to hold off planned cuts or to hire back workers for local services who have been laid-off because of tight budgets. The bill also includes $24 billion, already approved by the House in December, to help states support 250,000 education jobs, put 5,500 law enforcement officers on the beat, and retain, rehire, and hire firefighters.

Rep. Michael Honda Backs Afghanistan Military Withdrawal Timetable

On Tuesday, Rep. Michael Honda signed his name to legislation put forward by Sen. Russ Feingold, Rep. Jim McGovern and Rep. Walter Jones that would require the President to establish a timetable for the redeployment of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

This is potentially a bellwether event, because Rep. Honda - together with Rep. Grijalva, who also signed his name to the McGovern bill on Tuesday - has been a leader on Afghanistan in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including chairing the CPC Afghanistan task force. Rep. Honda has been very critical of the war, but he has not been an automatic supporter of anti-war legislative initiatives.

If the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" in Washington gets onto the McGovern bill in the next few weeks, the political space to be a "liberal" in Washington who supports an open-ended military commitment in Afghanistan will have largely evaporated when the House considers $33 billion more for war in Afghanistan between now and Memorial Day. Progressives in the House may be able to extract from the leadership a vote on a timetable for withdrawal when the House considers the war supplemental.

Feingold, McGovern, Jones Introduce Bill to End the War in Afghanistan

Yesterday, Senator Russ Feingold, Representative Jim McGovern, and Representative Walter Jones announced the introduction of legislation that - if it attracts enough support - could end the U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan, and bring the troops home.

The key idea of the bill is straightforward. By January 1 - or within 3 months of the enactment of the bill, if that is earlier - the President is required to submit to Congress a plan for the redeployment of the U.S. military from Afghanistan, with a timetable for doing so. After submitting the plan, the President has to update Congress every 90 days on how the implementation of the plan is going.

The bill allows Members of Congress to sign their names in favor of the all-important policy of having a timetable for military withdrawal, without everyone having to agree on a specific proposal for what the end date should be. Instead, it instructs President Obama to tell us what he thinks the plan should be.

The importance of establishing a timetable for military withdrawal cannot be overstated.

If you want to figure out how we are going to get the hell out of Afghanistan, the most obvious precedent to look at is: how are we getting the hell out of Iraq? And the answer is: with a timetable for military withdrawal, which is now the basis of a signed agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.

U.S. officials have repeatedly conceded that the endgame in Afghanistan includes a negotiated political settlement between the Afghan government and the main insurgent groups in Afghanistan. Such a settlement will only be possible if it is supported by the United States, and the key chip that only the United States can bring to the negotiating table is willingness to agree to a timetable for military withdrawal. So long as the United States refuses to agree to a timetable for withdrawal of U.S.

Feingold, McGovern Introduce Bill Requiring Timetable for Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Senator Feingold, Representative McGovern and Representative Walter Jones have announced the introduction of legislation that would require the President to establish a timetable for the redeployment of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

In the Senate, S. 3197; in the House, H.R. 5015.

Feingold's announcement is here.

The bill can be read here.

You can ask your Representative and Senators to co-sponsor it here.

Kucinich Voices Concern Over Futenma Base Relocation

Representative Dennis Kucinich sent a letter to Norman Dicks, chair of the House subcommittee on defense appropriations, expressing concerns about U.S. plans to relocate the U.S. base at Futenma in Okinawa to Nago, and urging that the concerns of Okinawa residents be taken into account. The letter is here.

U.S. Military Still Lying About Special Forces Night Raid in Afghanistan

U.S. officials are "probing a possible attempted coverup" in the deaths of five Afghan civilians in February in a raid carried out by U.S. Special Forces accompanied by Afghan troops, the Los Angeles Times reports. Among the charges is that the bodies were tampered with by U.S. forces to conceal the cause of death.

But even as the U.S. is supposedly investigating, U.S. officials say allegations that bullets were dug out of the bodies as part of a coverup are baseless, the LAT says.

Jerome Starkey had reported in the Times of London that Afghan investigators said U.S. Special Forces soldiers dug bullets out of their victims' bodies. But U.S. Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, General McChrystal's spokesman, said no forensic evidence or eyewitness testimony had been presented to support that account, the LAT says.

Admiral's Smith's statements appear to be a classic non-denial denial. Apparently no-one outside the U.S.

Congressional Pressure Can Help End the War, Saving Many Lives

In the next several weeks, Congress is likely to be asked to approve $33 billion more for the war in Afghanistan, mainly to pay for the current military escalation, whose focus is the planned assault on the Afghan city of Kandahar.

Some Members of Congress will vote no on the funding. A larger group of Members is likely to support efforts to pass language which would require an exit strategy or timetable for ending the war.

Barring some unforeseen event - like Afghan President Karzai joining the Taliban - an extrapolation from the recent past would suggest that neither efforts to block the funding, nor efforts to constrain it with real conditions, are likely to be narrowly "successful" in the short-run: extrapolating from the past, the most likely short-run legislative outcome is that the war money will be approved without conditions attached that would significantly constrain the war. This is especially true if 95% of Congressional Republicans continue to vote as a bloc to support the war.

Nonetheless, the fight over the war supplemental is tremendously important, because Congressional pressure can move Administration policy, even when critics of Administration policy don't command a majority of votes. This is especially true when, as in this case, critics are in the majority in the President's own party, and when, as in this case, the policy under pressure is an international policy which is also under significant international pressure.

How Many Vets Have Been "Wounded" in Iraq and Afghanistan?

During the House debate over the Kucinich resolution calling for a timetable for military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Rep. Bob Filner, chair of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, pointed out that hundreds of thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have gone to the VA for service-related injuries.

The video of Filner's statement is here.

A March 13 fact sheet from Veterans for Common Sense gives a more precise figure: they reported that 508,152 Iraq and Afghanistan veteran patients had been treated at the VA. This figure is from VA documents obtained by VCS under FOIA, and appears to be current through the end of FY 2009, i.e. through September 30, 2009.

The VCS fact sheet is here.

Note that these figures are very different from the official DoD statistics for "wounded" at icasualties.org, often cited in press reports. The total U.S. wounded figure given there for "Operation Enduring Freedom," which is mainly but not exclusively Afghanistan, is 5188 through March 2010, while the total US wounded figure for "Operation Iraqi Freedom" through March 2010 is 31716. That suggests the total U.S. "wounded" from the two wars is 36904, about 7.3% of the VA figure, which covers a slightly shorter period.

If for comparison to the VA figures, we just take the icasualties.org figures through September 30, 2009, that gives 31513 wounded for Iraq, 4174 wounded for OEF, for a total of 35687 wounded. 35687 is 7.02% of the VA figure of 508,152. So it appears that the DoD "wounded" figure is about 7% of the figure of vets who have been treated at the VA.

YouGovPolimetrix poll: Americans Support Obama's Pressure on Netanyahu

52% of Americans support, and 31% oppose, the Obama administration’s demand that Israel stop all settlement-building, Avaaz reports:

Summary results of YouGovPolimetrix poll of 1000 US citizens, surveyed on 20-21 March for Avaaz:

Most Americans back President Barack Obama’s Mideast strategy to stop Israeli settlement-building, lead negotiations for a two-state peace and get tough with both sides if necessary, according to a poll released today on the eve of a critical meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. The poll was conducted for the global advocacy network Avaaz by YouGovPolimetrix.

62% of those polled said the growth of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory will only lead to greater hostilities. 52% of respondents support, and 31% oppose, the Obama administration’s demand that Israel stop all settlement-building. 53% thought the US should be ready to get tough with both sides in peace negotiations if necessary, while only 33% disagreed.

61% of respondents supported the Obama administration’s plan to lead negotiations to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians during the coming months, with only 25% opposing that approach. The US goal of a two-state peace agreement between Israel and an independent Palestine is supported by 64% of the US public, according to the poll.

[This information can be found on Avaaz' web site here. Search on the page for the text, "Polimetrix."]

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