Last month, 60 Members of the House of Representatives, including 51 Democrats, voted against the war supplemental for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. But this week, when the House is expected to consider the agreement of a House-Senate conference on the war funding, the supplemental could well be defeated on the floor of the House - if most of the 51 anti-war Democrats stick to their no vote - which they might, if they hear from their constituents.
The key thing that's changed is the Treasury Department's insistence that the war supplemental include a $100 billion bailout for the International Monetary Fund - a bailout for European banks facing big losses in Eastern Europe, the international version of the Wall Street bailout.
House Republicans, including Minority Leader John Boehner, have threatened to vote no on the war funding if the IMF money is attached. If Boehner could bring all the Republicans with him, and if all the Democrats who voted no last month voted no again, the war supplemental would fail on the floor of the House, 200-228.
But not every Democrat who voted no before will vote no now, and therein lies the drama. The House leadership didn't need those anti-war Democrats before, so in a way it was a "free vote" - 51 Democrats could vote on behalf of their anti-war constituents without running afoul of the leadership. But if Treasury insists on the IMF money, and Republicans vote no, the leadership will need 18 of those Democrats now.
If civilian deaths from U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan were CO2 emissions, perhaps we'd be having a more effective discussion about reducing them.
The pattern seems to be this. When there are complaints about civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes and night raids, first the Pentagon denies there were any. When civilian deaths are documented, the Pentagon says civilian deaths are regrettable but we are doing everything we can possibly do to reduce them. When the complaints grow too strong to be dismissed in this way, the Pentagon announces that we are taking new steps to reduce civilian casualties (passing over the fact that this contradicts the previous claim that we were doing everything we could before to reduce civilian casualties.)
Then the cycle repeats.
If reducing civilian deaths from U.S. military operations were a priority, it would be a benchmark. After all, according to the repeated statements of U.S. officials, it's all about "hearts and minds" and securing and maintaining the allegiance of the population. So it seems obvious that an objective benchmark of progress is this regard would be the degree to which civilian casualties are reduced, since it is generally acknowledged that killing people's friends and relatives is extremely unpopular.
If civilian deaths from U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan were CO2 emissions, people would be arguing that we should cap them at a percentage of their current level.
For example: we could tell the Pentagon: each month you have a cap for how many civilians you can kill. The cap is seasonally adjusted, and is equal to, say, 90% of the average for the previous year.
This week Congress continues its formal consideration of the Administration’s request for “supplemental” money for the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a decision expected Wednesday by the Rules Committee on what amendments will be allowed. Regardless of the outcome on the actual money - it’s widely expected that the money will eventually go though - this is a key window for Congressional action.
There’s never a bad time for Members of Congress to try to exert more influence over foreign policy, but a particularly good time is when there is a request for funding pending - the Administration must perform concern about what Members of Congress think, there are opportunities for limiting amendments, and the media and public will be paying more attention to any debate. Likewise, there’s never a bad time to call or write your Member of Congress expressing concern about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but this week is a particularly good time to make contact, whether it’s to oppose the money or lobby for conditions.
And Tuesday, May 12 would be a particularly good day to call, because many advocacy groups - including the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Peace Action, United for Peace and Justice, and Just Foreign Policy - are calling on Americans to contact Congress on Tuesday in opposition to expansion of the war and in support of alternatives to military escalation. FCNL has provided a toll free number for calling Congress, which you can find here; if you use the toll-free number, it will add to the official tally of how many people called.
Until this week, it seemed like the conventional wisdom in Washington was that stopping U.S drone strikes in Pakistan was outside the bounds of respectable discussion.
That just changed. Or it should have.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus notes that counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen has told Congress that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are backfiring and should be stopped. Until now Congress has been reluctant to challenge the drone strikes, as they are reluctant in general to challenge “military strategy,” even when it appears to be causing terrible harm. But as McManus notes, Kilcullen has unimpeachable Pentagon credentials. He served as a top advisor in Iraq to General Petraeus on counterinsurgency, and is credited as having helped design the Iraq “surge.” Now, anyone in Washington who wants to challenge the drone strikes has all the political cover they could reasonably expect.
And what Kilcullen said leaves very little room for creative misinterpretation:
“Since 2006, we’ve killed 14 senior Al Qaeda leaders using drone strikes; in the same time period, we’ve killed 700 Pakistani civilians in the same area. The drone strikes are highly unpopular. They are deeply aggravating to the population. And they’ve given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism. … The current path that we are on is leading us to loss of Pakistani government control over its own population.”
Presumably, causing the Pakistani government to lose “control of its own population” is not an objective of United States foreign policy.
U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mullen "took pains to make it clear" the US would not press India to negotiate with Pakistan on sensitive issues, AP reports:
"We did not come here to ask the Indians for anything," Holbrooke said. "We were not there, I repeat, we were not there, to negotiate Pakistani-Indian relations."
I hope, for the sake of U.S. troops and the people of Afghanistan, that Holbrooke was lying.
Because if Holbrooke was telling the truth, the American people deserve an explanation.
Recently U.S. officials have been saying more and more openly what they previously only hinted at: the U.S. problem with the Pakistani government is not merely that the Pakistani government "isn't committed" to dealing with the fact that Afghan insurgents have sanctuaries in Pakistan; parts of the Pakistani state apparatus are, allegedly, actively supporting insurgent groups. And they're doing this, according to US officials cited in press reports, because they believe that it serves their interests to do so in their long confrontation with India.
Therefore, it would seem blindingly obvious, and people in and around the Obama administration have indicated that they understand this, that if you want to achieve a lasting political resolution to Afghanistan's problems, you ought to try to address Pakistan's motivations for supporting insurgents in Afghanistan and to address their security concerns with respect to India. In other words, you ought to try to promote India-Pakistan peace, and that includes supporting efforts to resolve the problem of Kashmir.
President Obama is expected to "announce" his "new" Afghanistan strategy Friday -- the traditional Washington day for burying things. But there aren't likely to be many surprises. The administration has been dribbling details out to the news media, and what has been foreshadowed includes: more troops, more civilians, narrower goals; a renewed concession, perhaps, that there is no military solution.
It is widely recognized that sending more people - whether soldiers or civilians - is very unlikely in itself to change anything fundamental, because the order of magnitude is wrong. The United States has not been, is not, and almost certainly never will be willing and able to commit the resources which would be necessary to transform Afghanistan into a peaceful "democracy" according to the present policy. The most that could be plausibly hoped for is that additional resources would help make a new policy work: a new policy based on a fundamental, political shift in US policy, including accommodation with the bulk of the political forces now backing Afghanistan's various insurgencies.
And therefore, it matters little in the big scheme of things how many new troops President Obama announces. If there is no real change in policy, new troops won't accomplish anything. If there is a real change in policy, any success will be due much more to the policy change than to the "troop surge" under the cover of which the policy change takes place.
What finally matters are the answers to four questions that are only now beginning to be asked.
1. Will the United States support political negotiations between the Afghan government and leaders of Afghanistan's insurgencies?