Following the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the floodgates opened in Washington this week for reconsideration of U.S. plans to continue the open-ended war in Afghanistan.
Now Representatives Jim McGovern and Walter Jones have introduced the "Afghanistan Exit and Accountability Act," bipartisan legislation that would require the President present to Congress a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and a clear end date for the war. It would require the President to submit quarterly reports to Congress on the progress of troop withdrawal, as well as the human and financial costs of continuing the war. The President would also have to report how much money U.S. taxpayers would save if the war were brought to an end in six months, instead of five, ten, or twenty years.
Other Members of Congress have spoken out this week against indefinite continuation of the war, including Senators Dick Durbin , Richard Lugar, and Robert Menendez; (jointly) Representatives Lee, Ellison, Grijalva, Woolsey, and Waters; Representative Barney Frank; and Representative Cliff Stearns.
But among all this, the intervention of McGovern and Jones is unique in that it carries with it the prospect of a roll call, in which every Member of the House will have to choose a side: open-ended war in Afghanistan, or a clear plan for military withdrawal?
The FY 2012 defense authorizations bill is expected to come before the House in late May or June. It is expected that Reps. McGovern and Jones will then offer their bill as amendment.
Introducing the bill now gives Americans the opportunity to talk to their Representatives about this legislation, and to ask them to co-sponsor it.
In a sense, when you are asking your Representative to co-sponsor the bill, you are asking them to vote for the amendment. But few people know much in advance exactly when legislation is going to be on the floor; often, many interested people find out that an amendment is going to be voted on less than 24 hours before the actual vote takes place. That’s not much time to have a meaningful interaction with your Representative, given that for most people most of the time, interacting with your Representative means interacting with a staff person, who then talks to the Representative. You want to allow some time for those conversations, and meaningful consideration, to take place. That’s why you want to have a conversation with your Representative’s office now, asking them to co-sponsor the bill, rather than waiting for the amendment. Also, getting co-sponsors on the bill allows you to build momentum; it allows Members of Congress to see what other Members of Congress are doing, something that they take into account when they decide their position. If you can say, this bill has 100 co-sponsors, that’s going to help you move people who are on the fence.
The current high-water mark in the House for requiring a real timetable for withdrawal is the 162 Members who voted on July 1 last year for the McGovern amendment requiring a timetable for withdrawal.
Much has changed since then.
The President put forward 2014 as a date when a "transition to Afghan lead" – not necessarily a withdrawal of U.S. forces – would take place. Public opinion has further soured on the war, including Republican opinion: before Sunday’s news, two-thirds of voters said the war was not worth it, including nearly half of Republicans and the majority of independents, and three-quarters of voters wanted to see a substantial withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan this summer, including the majority of Republicans and independents.
And then came Sunday’s news.
Senator Durbin said this week he voted for the 2001 resolution authorizing the war "to go after" al Qaeda and bin Laden:
"Now here we are, 10 years later," Durbin said. "If you asked me if I was signing up for the longest war in U.S. history, with no end in sight, even with the killing of Osama bin Laden, that was not the bargain, that is not what I was signing up for."
"If you believe that resolution of this conflict by military means is highly unlikely and not a realistic basis for US policy, how can we send one more American soldier to fight and die in Afghanistan?"
Another significant change is that debate among Republicans about the war is getting more prominent with the start of the Republican presidential primary campaign. Two of the candidates – Gary Johnson and Ron Paul – want to end the war. When the question came up in last night’s Republican debate, the Republican audience cheered when Gary Johnson and Ron Paul said that they wanted to end the war
If you look at that roll call from last July, a fact that immediately jumps out at you is that of those 162 who voted for the McGovern amendment, 153 of them were Democrats and 9 of them were Republicans. Pushing Members now to co-sponsor the McGovern bill is an opportunity to test movement in the House in the last year, especially among Republicans, since public opinion, especially Republican public opinion, soured on the war and since Osama bin Laden – for many Americans, the target of the war – has been removed from the scene.
Pressure for a real withdrawal timetable could help end the war much sooner, because while on the one hand the Administration now says it is "seeking to use the killing of Osama bin Laden to accelerate a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and hasten the end of the Afghanistan war," on the other hand, the Administration is pressing the government of Afghanistan for a "Permanent Bases Agreement" that would keep U.S. troops and bases in Afghanistan past 2014. The problem with that demand – in addition to the fact that it keeps U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan much longer than they need to be – is that the demand for an indefinite U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is likely to sabotage the peace talks in Afghanistan necessary to end the war.
So, if you don’t want to see the indefinite continuation of war in Afghanistan, you know what to do. You can write to your Representative here. Or you can call your Representative via the Capitol Switchboard, 202-225-3121. Ask your Representative to stand up for a real exit plan that has an end date, to start an irreversible process of bringing our troops home.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.