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A Crucial Day in Congress for the Ongoing War In Afghanistan | The Nation

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A Crucial Day in Congress for the Ongoing War In Afghanistan

Update 3:17 pm: The roll call vote for the McGovern amendment has been released, and there are a few interesting things about the Republicans who voted for it.

Three Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee supported it, including the second-highest-ranking Republican. Any substantive drawdown bills from that committee will need Republican support.

Freshmen Republicans formed the largest block within their party in support of McGovern’s amendment: Representatives Todd Rokita (R-IN), Raul Labrador (R-ID), Joe Walsh (R-IL), Mick Mulvaney (R-SC),Rich Nugent (R-FL) and Scott Rigell (R-VA) all voted in favor.

Longtime Republican opponents of the war also supported the amendment as well, including Representative Tim Johnson (R-IL), a West Point graduate and critic of the war, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and “unlikely Afghanistan dove.”

The NDAA has now passed the House by a 322-96 vote and heads to the Senate. As noted below, there’s also movement in that chamber against the war in Afghanistan, and it will be interesting to see if further amendments to slow the war are offered. 

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Update 2:05 pm: In a surprisingly close contest, the House rejected an amendment sponsored by Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) which called for a withdrawal plan from Afghanistan, preferably one that outlines an “aggressive" drawdown of troops. It lost by only eleven votes, 215-204.

Twenty-six Republicans supported the measure, as did all but eight Democrats.Twelve representatives copped out from voting—six on each side of the aisle. 

The close margin will no doubt put additional pressure on the White House to enact a substantial drawdown in July. Still, having more Republicans vote for it would have turned up the heat even further. Eighteen Republicans voted for an earlier amendment that directly called for withdrawal, so one might have thought more than an extra eight would have favored simply seeing a plan. It will be interesting to see what Republicans crossed over when the roll call is released.

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Update 1:31 pm: The House just crushed a bipartisan amendment by Tea Party Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) that would have required the withdrawal of all U.S. ground troops from Afghanistan except those directly involved in counterterrorism operations. The vote was 294-123.

Eighteen Republicans favored the measure. A majority of Democrats favored it as well, although seventy-seven voted against it.

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Update 1:20 pm: On a near-party line vote of 234-187, the House has voted down an amendment by Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) and Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) that would have stripped the so-called “endless war” provision from the defense authorization bill.

As noted below, Section 1034 seems to authorize the use of military force against any forces deemed to be threatening the United States. The White House has already threatened to veto the entire defense bill over that language.

Twenty-one Republicans broke with their party to support the Amash-Lee amendment; unfortunately, twenty Democrats also crossed over and opposed it.

There is one amendment left addressing Section 1034, by Representative Garamendi (D-CA). That would sunset the relevant language in three years.

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Update 11:57 am: The amendment sponsored by Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Representative Walter Jones (R-NC), along with several members of both parties, appears to have failed on a voice vote. A recorded vote will occur later today.

The amendment calls for President Obama to release a detailed plan for withdrawal. Technically one already exists, culminating in a withdrawal by 2014, but the McGovern amendment supports an “accelerated” withdrawal and could gain significant bipartisan support even in failure. As Tom Hayden pointed out today, the seemingly benign nature of the amendment might actually allow many members from both sides of the aisle political cover to support it, thus sending the White House a clear message about Congressional desire for withdrawal.

Representative McGovern referenced news reports that the planned July 2011 drawdown may only be a “token” withdrawal, and argued that “this amendment could send the president a clear signal of support for a substantial drawdown.” He added that “too many people have died in Afghanistan…. we need to rethink what we’re doing.”

Citing ominous comments from Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this year that substantial withdrawal may not begin until 2015, Representative Jones also urged the House to ask for a withdrawal plan. Jones noted the deaths this month of two Marines that were based in his district, and asked “what do we say to the mother and father and wife of the last Marine killed to support a corrupt government and a corrupt leader?”

Both Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer also urged passage of the amendment, throwing the weight of the Democratic leadership behind McGovern’s effort.

Many Republicans who spoke were combative, and spoke with characteristic bluster. Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX) noted Jones’s anguish over the deaths of troops from his district, but said “decisions can’t be made simply on those emotions.”

Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA) blasted “voices from the sideline screaming for (us) to quit,” and essentially accused Democrats of supporting terrorists. “When I listen to what I hear today…I think, who would love this amendment?” Forbes asked. “I tell you who would have. The Taliban and al Qaeda would love any indication that we’re going to get out of there before we get the job done.”

A roll call vote is scheduled for later in the day; stay tuned for the vote totals.

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Today marks one of the most momentous days on Capitol Hill for the almost decade-long war in Afghanistan, as the House of Representatives debates a massive defense bill that will continue to fund combat operations there—but which will also have more bipartisan amendments attempting to end the conflict than ever before.

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2011, also known as H.R. 1540, provides $690 billion for the Department of Defense and for nuclear weapons programs at the Department of Energy, and includes $119 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bill is as controversial as it is massive—Republicans have included language that delays the implementation of “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and as well as implentation of the new START treaty. H.R. 1540 would also prohibit detainee transfers from Guantánamo Bay and provide continued funding for the second engine of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the defense appropriation that won’t die. The White House has threatened to veto the entire bill because of the fighter engine, START treaty, and detainee language.

And far from limiting the war in Afghanistan, H.R. 1540 contains crucial language that would extend America’s authority to fight even beyond that country.

The crucial Section 1034 “affirms” that the United States is “engaged in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces and that those entities continue to pose a threat to the United States and its citizens, both domestically and abroad.” Proponents of that section say it simply puts a Congressional stamp on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the legal underpinning of the war in Afghanistan.

But it’s the words “associated forces… that continue to pose a threat to the United States” that are problematic to many legislators of both parties. The 2001 AUMF explicitly authorized action against only those involved in the September 11 attacks, and the new language would seem to extend the authorization to anyone, anywhere, that “threatened” the United States. In other words: endless war.

The White House is also threatening to veto the bill over Section 1034, which it believes will “effectively recharacterize [the conflict’s] scope and would risk creating confusion regarding applicable standards.” Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI), Ron Paul (R-TX), Walter Jones (R-NC), Barbara Lee (D-CA), John Conyers (D-MI) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) are offering a bipartisan amendment to strip Section 1034 entirely, and Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) has an amendment to sunset it after three years.

Beyond these efforts to keep the war on terror from further metastasizing, there are several measures that will attempt to end or greatly decrease the war in Afghanistan.

Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), a major Tea Party player and possible contender for Orrin Hatch’s seat in the Senate, is offering an amendment with Representative Peter Welch (D-VT) that would require the withdrawal of all US ground troops in Afghanistan except those directly involved in counterterrorism operations. If passed, the Secretary of Defense would have to offer a withdrawal plan within sixty days.

“It is long past time to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end. After ten costly years, it is crystal clear that the US strategy of nation building in a corrupt country with a minimal Al Qaeda presence is not working. Terrorism is a decentralized threat to America’s national security and our counter-terrorism strategies should reflect that reality,” Chaffetz and Welch said.

Another amendment by a remarkable bipartisan coalition—Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA), Amash, David Cicilline (D-RI), Jones, John Lewis (D-GA), and Paul—would not require withdrawal, but would demand that President Obama report to Congress with a plan and a timeframe for “accelerated transition of US military and security operations in Afghanistan to the Government of Afghanistan.”

Another amendment by Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) would require a report from the Defense Department on Afghanistan strategy within 60 days, taking into account the death of Osama bin Laden, and another amendment by Representative Lee would bar construction of any permanent bases in Iraq or Afghanistan.

None of these amendments are likely to pass today. But the volume and bipartisan nature of these measures—drawing together the usual liberal voices along with Tea Party representatives and longtime conservative members—signal that the Congressional tide is turning against the war, and could push President Obama to seriously consider a substantial drawdown of troops in July.

This House action comes alongside increased talk of ending the conflict in the Senate, as well. In a floor speech yesterday, Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) called for a “change of course” in Afghanistan, with a withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2012. And in a major speech at the Center for American Progress earlier this week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) asked for an “aggressive” drawdown of troops, along with a plan for withdrawal from President Obama and a signed redeployment agreement with political factions in Afghanistan.

The White House has no doubt taken note of this Congressional momentum, and the vote tallies on the Afghanistan-related amendments are crucially important, even if they are defeated. The margin and level of bipartisan support could go a long way towards changing the thinking in Washington about continuing to fight the historically long conflict.

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