One hundred sixty-two House members, including a large majority of Democrats, sent a significant antiwar message to President Obama last night, forcing the White House to depend for Afghanistan war support on the Republicans who want to unseat the Democrats and Obama himself in upcoming elections.
Despite claims by punditry that the antiwar movement has disappeared, stalwart Representative Barbara Lee gained 100 votes for her amendment rejecting $33 billion for 30,000 new troops already being sent to Afghanistan. Seven of her votes were Republicans. The measure would have redirected the $33 billion to expenses incurred in redeploying the troops out of Afghanistan.
More significant numerically, there were 162 votes cast for Representative Jim McGovern’s amendment, co-authored by representatives David Obey and Walter Jones, which articulated a game plan for ending the war. Only a year ago, the same measure was introduced as a general and non-binding resolution. This time the proposal required, as a condition of funding, an exit proposal including a withdrawal timetable, by next spring, before the president’s announced plan to "begin" withdrawals in July. Further, in response to rising pressure to delay withdrawals, the McGovern proposal would require another Congressional vote if the administration succumbed to pressure from Republicans and the military to delay the beginning departure date.
Among Democrats, the vote for McGovern was 153-98, with nine Republican supporters. Significantly, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who this week predicted a strong Democratic push for a “substantial drawdown” by next year, voted with McGovern.
Beltway-based peace groups were surprised by the outcome. "All in all, we did better than I expected," blogged Paul Kawika-Martin of Peace Action as the televised vote rolled across the CSPAN screen.
Though the war will escalate as a result of the final vote, the opponents sent a powerful message to the president and newly confirmed Gen. David Petraeus that antiwar pressure will only increase in the period ahead, adding important pressure for the July 2011 deadline to be maintained and clarified by a timeline for completion, as originally proposed by Senator Russ Feingold.
The message is sure to reinforce the belief in the Karzai administration, the Pakistan government and among NATO allies that time is running out, thus giving an impetus for accelerating talks with the Taliban.
The escalating offensive in southern Afghanistan will continue apace, with uncertain results.
The Taliban may misread the message from Congress, however, and overplay their hand. Their strength lies in southern Pashtun communities in southern Afghanistan and Pakistan, suggesting that their future lies in a negotiated power-sharing arrangment with the northern tribes and warlords they fought in the civil war nearly a decade ago. The McGovern proposal foreshadows a scenario of peace diplomacy that stabilizes a deeply divided country.