In Afghanistan, the Beginning of the End?
With eighteen Democratic senators voting for Russ Feingold's legislative call for withdrawal from Afghanistan, is a long and bloody end to the Afghanistan quagmire in sight? Feingold says he was "encouraged" by the May 27 vote in spite of its rejection, particularly because of support from most of the Senate's Democratic leadership—senators Richard Durbin, Charles Schumer and Patty Murray.
Representative John Conyers, frustrated by Congress's inaction towards the Afghanistan War, is forming a new caucus to focus Congressional opposition to the continuing conflict.
Russ Feingold and Jim McGovern are expected to introduce legislation as early as next week calling for a "flexible timetable" for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
Feingold noted that his amendment was only the first Senate attempt to vote on withdrawal in the decade-long war. Only thirteen senators voted for his first attempt to require a similar timetable for Iraq, "and today, a timetable is exactly what is in place in Iraq." After that first vote in 2007, the combined Senate support for either Feingold's deadline or softer legislation by Senator Carl Levin calling for gradual withdrawal to begin, rose to majority support in 2008, under the pressure of the antiwar movement and presidential primary politics.
It is possible, therefore, to envision gradual pressure causing President Obama to accept peace talks and a withdrawal timetable as substantive additions to his current pledge to "begin" US troop withdrawals by July 2011. Currently, however, Obama is committed to a military surge in Kandahar, increasing drone and Special Operations attacks and blocking efforts by Afghan president Hamid Karzai and his national peace convention to launch talks with the Taliban.
An identical measure to Feingold's, HR 5015 by Representative Jim McGovern, is likely to be taken up in the House in the next two weeks. McGovern's measure has at least ninety-two co-sponsors, less than half the 218 needed for passage, but a larger peace bloc than in the Senate.
The exact language of the Feingold-McGovern measures calls for a "plan with [a] timetable" to be delivered to Congress by the president in ninety days, for "the safe, orderly and expeditious redeployment" of US armed forces from Afghanistan, including military and "security-related" contractors. The legislation allows a loophole for "information regarding variables that could alter that timetable."
The reporting requirement would be repeated every ninety days.
The contractor language requires reports and recommendations for greater oversight and "reducing" reliance on contractors and subcontractors "responsible for the deaths of Afghan civilians."
There is nothing in the legislation about Pakistan, growing drone attacks or controls on the expansion of secret warfare by American Special Operations units.
Since neither measure will pass the Democrat-controlled Congress, the stage is set for a growing battle over withdrawal through 2012, a presidential election year. There will be two more opportunities for votes over war funding during that period.
Bill Zimmerman is a longtime peace activist and political consultant based in Santa Monica with ties to several Obama campaign operatives. Zimmerman says, "Let's hope Obama's able to learn fast enough to do the right thing. He isn't going to have the luxury of coasting through this period. There will be continuing crises that will provoke ongoing policy re-evaluation, so we need to keep the pressure on for withdrawal until one of those crises changes the balance of forces."
Peace groups are concerned over a "no" vote by Senator Al Franken, whose reputation was built on repeated criticisms on Air America radio of Bush's Iraq war. Despite his image, Franken has never been willing to support withdrawal proposals from either war. In addition, Senator Diane Feinstein voted "no" after calling for a withdrawal date last September. The power of political pressure was a factor in pushing New York senate candidate Kirsten Gillibrand to vote with Feingold. She is facing an opposition primary candidate, Jonathan Tasini, as well as a pro-peace electorate.
A brief opinion sampling of twenty-five local peace activists in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, New Hampshire, the Bay Area and Miami, done June 3-4, revealed mixed feelings about the prospects for ending the war. For example:
• The large majority [twenty-one] expressed "strong" support for Feingold-McGovern. Three supported Feingold-McGovern "somewhat," while only one said the measures "don't matter much."
• But only eight felt the vote of eighteen senators was "encouraging," while nine said it was "not significant enough," and twenty concluded the small number was "evidence that the peace movement cannot count on politicians or the Democratic Party."
• If the McGovern measure receives 100-plus House votes, five felt it would be a "step forward," seven said it would be "a strong message to the White House," and twenty-two agreed it was "evidence that Congress will not stop the war on its own."
• Given two choices, five thought the war would end through "gradual and steady pressure" on the government, while fifteen thought that "only the threat of political losses will convince the President and the Democrats to adopt an exit strategy, including peace talks and troop withdrawals from Afghanistan."
Among the activists' comments were these:
"I have been working with veterans on mental health issues at the Bedford, VA, Medical Center. It's often frustrating to have to pick up the pieces resulting from insane policies and a national war-fighting mentality…. It's hard to tell [if activism is increasing or decreasing], I think people are stressed out and exhausted, but nevertheless trying to find ways to be genuinely effective. Until we and our elected officials can break the stranglehold of corporations and stop overextending around the world, our country will remain in deep trouble." —Sylvia Gilman, MA
"[On Feingold-McGovern:] What else is there? At least a few people remember we are at war and wasting all our resources on it. [On whether political losses are an effective threat:] They already witnessed political losses from war stance and then get there and don't do s--- about it. [On whether activism has increased]: It is all of me then and now, but it is much lonelier now and there is much less financial support." —Jodie Evans, Code Pink, Venice, CA
"Two ministers who went with us to visit Congresswoman Tsongas said that no one in their congregation brought up the subject of the war in Afghan except them. " —Shelagh Foreman, Boston
"I believe Congress will move toward ending the war when Republicans begin to oppose it, which is the strategy I am currently pursuing!" —Dave
"I think Obama volunteers should get together and agree not to work for Obama again until some basic demands are met." —Jeff Napolitano, American Friends Service Committee