Wednesday afternoon we saw something that is all too rare in Congress—prolonged debate on the merits of the US’s military strategy in Afghanistan. For three and half hours, representatives took to the House floor and publicly declared their support for or opposition to a policy that is costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives.
Representatives opposed to the war pointed out major flaws in the strategy that are too often ignored. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), whom Peace Action West supporters helped elect in 2008, pointed out that large scale military occupation is a waste of resources and an ineffective way to deal with terrorism, and questioned just how many countries the US would have to occupy if we continue down this road.
With American families struggling to find jobs and get access to healthcare, the financial cost of the war came up throughout the debate. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) issued a statement highlighting the domestic challenges competing for funds with the misguided war effort:
My vote today, is consistent with my opposition to the recent troop surge and reflects my belief that our current efforts in Afghanistan are ineffective, and that our troops and resources could be more effectively deployed elsewhere. It’s time for us to redirect our focus back home, where numerous challenges continue to burden families in my district and across the country. In good conscience, I cannot continue to support an expensive, protracted military conflict at a time when my district has double digit unemployment, skyrocketing foreclosure rates, and other issues that affect the quality of life of the people I represent.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) recounted her lone vote against the war resolution in 2001, in the heat of reaction to the 9/11 attacks, and called on her fellow representatives to live up to their responsibility to develop a “more effective US foreign policy for the 21st century.”
While several representatives took to the floor with tired talking points about undermining the troops and raising the morale of our enemies, concerns about the current strategy did not come only from people who voted yes on the resolution. Many members praised Rep. Kucinich in their remarks for forcing this important debate.
Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ Afghanistan Task Force, pointed out that the US government is missing the bigger picture about the limits of military power and the need to invest in civilian solutions:
As long as we continue to pursue military solutions to this conflict, paying little to no heed to economic, political and social solutions, security will remain elusive. As long as we continue to forego the building of Afghan capacity and instead prop up a privatized defense industrial complex, as well as an increasingly privatized development industrial complex, Afghans will never be able to answer our call to “stand up”. As long as we remain unwilling to bring to justice our allied warlords and corrupt officials in Afghanistan, our calls for an end to corruption in Kabul ring hollow.
Washington must face up to the alarming reality that the hundreds of billions of dollars being pumped into Afghanistan are simply not benefiting the Afghan people whatsoever and are not being used effectively in the long-term U.S. strategic interest. Washington also must realize that hard power is utterly limited in its capacity to eliminate an ideological enemy, who is not finite in number. What must be pursued, instead, is the build-up of Afghan state capacity to provide policing and legal enforcement, systems of justice, and good intelligence (in addition, of course, to the socio-economic policies capable of educating and employing a vulnerable population).
Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) reiterated her opposition to the 30,000-troop increase and told her colleagues, “I share Mr. Kucinich’s sentiment, but not his schedule.”
While the resolution failed 65-356, there is much more to the story that what is contained in the numbers. The Kucinich resolution went much farther than any piece of Afghanistan legislation the House has considered—calling with a withdrawal within 30 days, or by the end of the year at the very latest–making this a stronger showing than many expected. Afghanistan has long been considered the “good war,” and members of Congress have been reluctant to speak out against President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy. The list of yes votes includes influential members like Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey of Wisconsin, who publicly declared last year that he would give the president a year to improve the situation in Afghanistan before he would actively oppose his strategy. I heard Rep. Obey’s statement cited by many congressional staffers in lobby meetings as a reason for giving the “new” strategy a chance, so Rep. Obey’s vote in favor of the strong language in this bill sends an important message.
There are many more members of Congress who have serious concerns about the viability of the military strategy in Afghanistan but were not comfortable voting for a withdrawal on such a short timeline. There will be other opportunities throughout the year to pressure members of Congress to speak out publicly for nonmilitary alternatives and to cosponsor legislation that will put us on the path toward military withdrawal. As we have seen with the war in Iraq, public and congressional opposition is likely to grow with the loss of more tax dollars and innocent lives, and we must harness that opposition to push our government for a better approach.