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.
A majority of House Democrats are already on the record as saying that the Administration should provide Congress and the American people with an exit strategy. Last summer, the majority of House Democrats voted for Representative McGovern’s amendment which would have required the Pentagon to present Congress with an exit strategy by the end of the year. McGovern’s amendment failed to become law, but its demand for an exit strategy was reflected in President Obama’s subsequent announcement that U.S. troops would begin drawing down from Afghanistan in July 2011.
Telling us when the current escalation of force will begin to be reversed doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about when the war ends. However, Obama’s announcement, limited as it was, has already had and continues to have effects on the ground. When delegates from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami insurgent faction recently presented a formal peace proposal to President Karzai’s government, they specifically cited President Obama’s statements regarding U.S. withdrawal as a motivation for their action. The announcement that US forces are going to begin withdrawing in July 2011 puts pressure on the US government and Afghan political actors to accommodate, because as July 2011 comes around, everyone will have to concede that the Afghanistan of July 2011 is by and large the Afghanistan they have to live with – the situation is not going to be changed by the addition of more U.S. troops. If the Afghan Taliban are still standing in July 2011 – as they almost certainly will be – that’s who a new political dispensation in Afghanistan is going to have to deal with. Since everyone knows they will have to deal with this in July 2011, wise people will prepare accordingly.
The US war in Afghanistan is increasingly unpopular around the world, not only with the public, but also with governments. In particular, the US is increasingly isolated in its public posture of "fight now, talk later." The Afghan government, the United Nations, and the British all want serious peace talks to start now. This is a major factor in the current dispute between the Obama Administration and President Karzai: Karzai wants serious talks to start now, the Obama Administration is still insisting on "fight now, talk later." One motivation for the US government in obstructing meaningful peace talks is likely that meaningful peace talks would almost certainly result in a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces.
The Obama Administration’s ability to continue to pursue its opposition to meaningful negotiations now – at the cost of many American and Afghan lives – depends crucially on the perception of unified political support for the Administration at home. If it is perceived internationally that there is significant U.S. opposition to the war, the Administration’s ability to continue to block meaningful talks will be weakened.
Of course, the sooner meaningful talks start, the sooner the war will end. Moreover, meaningful political negotiations will tend to deescalate the conflict, so that even as US troops remain in the country, fewer of them will be killed and wounded and they will kill and wound fewer Afghans.
Moreover, the coming fight over the war supplemental is an opportunity for Members of Congress to use the megaphone provided by the debate to attack specific egregious aspects of U.S. policy, such as the continued use of Special Forces "night raids" into private residences – like the one in February that killed two pregnant women – a policy on which the U.S. is politically vulnerable, since press reports indicate that this is the top Afghan complaint against the U.S. military, due to the civilian deaths that inevitably result and Afghans’ strong sense of cultural violation from these night raids.
If you look back to the Congressional fights over Iraq policy of 2007, Congress never succeeded in enacting into law a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. And yet, while the legislation "failed," the policy prevailed, and now a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is the basis of a signed agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Of course Congressional advocacy did not bring this about by itself, but it contributed significantly to it. Iraqi government officials demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops were able to use U.S. Congressional support for a withdrawal timetable – and the consequent support by then-candidate Obama – as a lever against the Bush Administration.
This is why it’s so important for Members of Congress to hear from their constituents on Afghanistan in the next few weeks. If Members hear from their constituents, they are much more likely to use this opportunity to shorten the war, saving many American and Afghan lives.