In serious contention for Dumbest Washington Consensus for September is the idea of cutting off Iran's gas imports to pressure Iran to stop enriching uranium. A majority of Representatives and Senators have signed on to legislation that seeks to block Iran's gas imports, a top legislative priority for the so-called "Israel Lobby." But it's a stupid idea. Let us count the ways.
One: there is no indication that Russia and China will go along with it. Even Europe is split, Reuters reports. Turkey is also likely to be unenthusiastic - a country that has good relations with Iran, has a long border with Iran, and is currently on the UN Security Council. A U.S.-sponsored gas embargo on Iran isn't likely to have much impact if Russia, China, Turkey and half of Europe aren't cooperating - after all, it's not the U.S. that's exporting gas to Iran - unless it is imposed by force.
Two: Iran has threatened to retaliate against a U.S.-sponsored gas embargo by stopping its oil exports to the West. There is a historical precedent that ought to give Americans and Britons some pause: when Britain wanted to punish the democratically elected Mossadegh government for nationalizing Iran's oil, Britain imposed an embargo on Iranian oil exports, enforced by the British Navy. Fine, Mossadegh said, we don't care. Let it stay in the ground. When the embargo failed, the British tried to overthrow Mossadegh in a coup. When that failed, the British asked the U.S. to intervene, and the CIA and British intelligence overthrew Mossadegh. How does returning to the British colonialism script for Iran fit in with the whole outreach to the Muslim world thing?
If you don't know where your Representative stands, now would be a good time to call and ask. The Congressional switchboard is 202-225-3121. Ask to be connected to your Representative's office, and ask your Representative to co-sponsor McGovern's bill [H.R. 2404] and support McGovern's amendment (which is essentially the same text as the bill) when it comes to the floor.
This will mark the first time in the Obama Administration that there has been a debate and vote in the House specifically on U.S. policy towards Afghanistan. The amendment is quite worthy in its own right: do not the Congress and the American people - not to mention the people of Afghanistan - have the right to be told what the exit strategy for the U.S. military is? But it is also a wedge to open up debate in the United States about what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan and plans to do in the future.
Military commanders have made statements indicating plans to remain in Afghanistan until 2020. If ten more years of war is the Pentagon's "exit strategy," we - and the people of Afghanistan - have a right to know that and debate it.
Since you're calling your Congressional office anyway, let me call three other worthy amendments to your attention.
Last week, the House leadership prevailed on many progressive Democrats to vote for the war supplemental, paying for military escalation in Afghanistan with no exit strategy, giving $108 billion to the International Monetary Fund without requiring modest reforms such as requiring the IMF to publish minutes of its board meetings (as the Federal Reserve does.)
The leadership obtained this consent, in part, by making the vote a loyalty test. Does the loyalty run the other way?
Today the Rules Committee is scheduled to consider amendments to the FY2010 Defense Authorization. The Rules Committee, which largely defers to the House leadership, will determine if progressive amendments will see the light of day.
Amendment #2, offered by Reps. McGovern, Jones, and Pingree,
Would require the Defense Secretary to report to Congress, not later than December 31, 2009, on a U.S. exit strategy for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan participating in Operation Enduring Freedom.
As a freestanding bill, McGovern's amendment has 90 sponsors. President Obama himself said in March that the U.S. must have an exit strategy. McGovern's amendment simply says that the Pentagon has to tell Congress what the exit strategy is. Will the leadership allow McGovern's amendment to come to a vote?
McGovern's amendment is key to getting the honest debate over U.S. policy in Afghanistan that we have been so far denied.
In March, President Obama told CBS' "60 Minutes" that the United States must have an "exit strategy" in Afghanistan.
Ninety Members of Congress agree. They're supporting H.R. 2404, a bill introduced by Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) whose text is one sentence long: "Not later than December 31, 2009, the Secretary of Defense shall submit to Congress a report outlining the United States exit strategy for United States military forces in Afghanistan participating in Operation Enduring Freedom."
The Members of Congress are going a bit further than President Obama. They're saying not only that the U.S. should have an exit strategy, but that Congress and the American people should be told what it is.
It's Congress - and the American people - who have the power of the purse. This week, over the protests of progressive Democrats, Congress approved another war supplemental - paying for military escalation with no exit strategy - bringing the total spending for the war in Afghanistan to $223 billion since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Americans aren't just paying for the war through their tax dollars. More than 700 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Some 56,000 U.S. soldiers are in Afghanistan now, and President Obama has ordered 21,000 more soldiers to be sent there. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S.
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.
With the passage of the war supplemental by the Senate, President Obama and Congress are "doubling down" on war in Afghanistan. Are we - and the Afghan people - doomed to endure many more years of war?
There is no reason that we need be, according to yesterday's New York Times, which reports that talks between Taliban leaders and Afghan government representatives have accelerated since Obama's election, and that Afghan officials say they have the tacit blessing of Washington for the talks.
Furthermore, the demands being put forward by the Taliban in the negotiations appear, on the face of it, to be eminently reasonable.
Daoud Abedi, one of the intermediaries in the talks, told the Times he had hammered out a common set of demands between the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group. The groups agreed to stop fighting if those conditions were met, Abedi said.
The first demand was an immediate pullback of American and other foreign forces to their bases, followed by a cease-fire and a total withdrawal from the country over the next 18 months. Then the current government would be replaced by a transitional government made up of a range of Afghan leaders, including those of the Taliban and other insurgents. Americans and other foreign soldiers would be replaced with a peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations, with a guarantee from the insurgent groups that they would not attack such a force. Nationwide elections would follow after the Western forces left.
Is there anything here which appears unreasonable on its face?
- Pullback to bases: this was a demand of the Iraqi government, which the US eventually agreed to a version of.
- Cease-fire: a standard element of any peace plan.
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.
Americans elected President Obama in part based on his promise to put diplomacy and international cooperation, rather than the use and threat of military force, at the center of his foreign policy. With respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan, while there have been some encouraging signals, in terms of actually implemented policies the folks who voted for Obama are not yet getting the "diplomacy first" that they were promised.
Last week the Washington Post reported that 55% of Democrats support negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, and that 56% of Democrats think the U.S. should focus more on economic development in Afghanistan than on defeating the Taliban militarily. Given that not all "Democrats" voted for Obama, and not all "Republicans" voted for McCain, and that pro-diplomacy Democrats and Republicans were more likely to vote for Obama than McCain, these numbers may understate the case.
The Washington Post-ABC poll asked:
Would you support or oppose the U.S. negotiating with elements of the Taliban if they agreed to suspend attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces?
Among Democrats the answers were: 55% yes, 39% no, 6% no opinion.
The poll asked:
Do you think the U.S. should focus more on economic development in Afghanistan or more on defeating the Taliban militarily?
Among Democrats the answers were: 56% economic development in Afghanistan, 32% defeating the Taliban militarily, 12% no opinion.
The great thing about talking to the Taliban is that it costs nothing, kills no-one, and is compatible and complementary, at least initially, with every other strategy.
A progressive Congressional staffer once told me: "The first rule of Congress is - if you have the opportunity to vote both ways on the same issue, do it."
In "narrowing" the goals for the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, President Obama appears to have obeyed the first rule of Congress. In his speech on Afghanistan, Obama had it both ways.
He asserted that "we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future" and that "we are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future."
At the same time he struck out against an assumed threat of a "return to Taliban rule," and insisted that al Qaeda terrorists "would accompany the core Taliban leadership," which arguably implies that the set of U.S. goals may not have narrowed very much, and that the U.S. is indeed still trying to control Afghanistan and dictate its future.
It's a shame. He could have made a different choice. He could still make a different choice. And, I suspect, he will, eventually, be compelled to make a different choice. The real question, I suspect, is how long it will be before he is compelled to make a different choice, and how many Americans and Afghans will die for no reason in the meantime.
Just as the Obama Administration has finally been compelled to admit that there is no way out of the US financial crisis without the temporary nationalization of big financial institutions, so too the Obama Administration will eventually be compelled to admit that there is no way out of Afghanistan that does not pass through peace talks between the Afghan government and leaders of Afghanistan's insurgencies.
How many will die in the meantime?