In mid-November, the Christian Science Monitor reports, a loya jirga in Afghanistan – a national meeting of tribal leaders and other notable Afghans – will vote on whether to meet the Obama administration’s terms for keeping U.S. troops in the country beyond the end of 2014.
If you care about democracy in Afghanistan, you should be happy for the Afghans. Whether or not – and if so, under what conditions – they want to have thousands of U.S. troops in their country after 2014 is obviously a very big deal for them. Why shouldn’t they have full deliberation and debate?
But if you also care about democracy in the United States, you should be a bit troubled. Because Congress has never approved keeping thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the end of 2014.
The closest Congress has come to considering this question is in language passed by the House in June, 2013. Offered by Democratic Representative Jim McGovern, this language – which passed the House 305-121, with a majority of both Democrats and Republicans voting yes- said [my emphasis]:
(a) In General- It is the policy of the United States that, in coordination with the Government of Afghanistan, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries, and other allies in Afghanistan, the President shall– (1) complete the accelerated transition of United States combat operations to the Government of Afghanistan by not later than December 31, 2013; (2) complete the accelerated transition of United States military and security operations to the Government of Afghanistan and redeploy United States Armed Forces from Afghanistan (including operations involving military and security-related contractors) by not later than December 31, 2014; […] (b) Sense of Congress- It is the sense of Congress that should the President determine the necessity to maintain United States troops in Afghanistan to carry out missions after December 31, 2014 … such presence and missions should be authorized by a separate vote of Congress not later than June 1, 2014.
So the House is on record saying that 1) U.S. troops should be out of Afghanistan by December 31, 2014 and 2) if the President determines that it is necessary to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after December 31, 2014, that should be authorized by a separate vote of Congress.
The problem is that right now – not in June 2014 – the Obama Administration is working to finalize an agreement with the Afghan government on keeping thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the end of 2014. So if Congress were to wait until May 2014 to vote on this, how do you think that’s going to go? We’re likely to be told, oh, sorry, that’s a done deal. The U.S. has already signed an agreement with the government of Afghanistan to keep thousands of troops there after the end of 2014. So, if Congress were to vote no on that now, we would then likely be told, they’d be undermining U.S. policy and making the President look bad.
Congress should be debating this and voting on it right now, before any agreement is signed. The Senate will soon be considering the National Defense Authorization Act. That’s a perfect opportunity to consider whether to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. Currently, the Afghan government is trying to get cozy with the Pakistani Taliban. It’s their lookout, you could say. But should we continue to support them with our blood and treasure?
Meanwhile, Congress is debating a ten year plan for the federal budget. You think keeping thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely is going to be free? The current average cost of keeping ten thousand U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan for a year is twenty billion dollars. If that happens that for six years, it’s going to cost U.S. taxpayers more than some people claim they are going to save the government over ten years by cutting Social Security benefits with the "chained CPI." Food stamps are being cut. Shall we tolerate being poor-mouthed on domestic spending, while the cost of keeping thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely goes unmentioned?
Representatives Jim McGovern, Barbara Lee, and Walter Jones are currently working to rally their fellow Members of Congress to speak up about this. If you agree with them that any agreement to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely should be debated and voted on in Congress before it is signed, you can tell Congress so here.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.