Two key antiwar critics, Senator Russ Feingold and Representative 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. The proposal, now in final stages of preparation, was confirmed by McGovern and by Feingold's office.
The coordinated effort, the first of its kind during the Afghanistan war, is reminiscent of similar House-Senate proposals that eventually succeeded in winning majority support during the Vietnam War. During the Iraq War, resolutions calling for a timetable steadily advanced as well, until they became Obama's platform in 2008.
The new initiative will challenge the Obama administration and offer an organizing vehicle for the peace movement. The recent sixty-five votes for Representative Dennis Kucinich's antiwar resolution is not a true measure of antiwar sentiment in the Congress, McGovern told me, adding, "We haven't had our full debate on the war." Congressional restlessness is climbing over sacrificing American lives and dollars for a corrupt and recalcitrant Karzai government, he argues.
A Congressional letter from Feingold and McGovern questioning the current policy is expected shortly, to be followed by introduction of the legislation. McGovern also will introduce an updated version of last year's resolution requesting an exit plan from the administration. Last year's version had 100 House sponsors.
Congressional attention will soon turn to the Pentagon's requests for $33 billion to fund the current Afghan escalation and $159 billion for Iraq-Afghanistan war funding in fiscal year 2011. Obama has spoken against open-ended funding and pledged to "begin" troop withdrawals from Afghanistan by summer 2011. Yet he has refused to agree to a date by which all troops will be withdrawn as he did during the Iraq war in 2008.
The Feingold-McGovern proposal could challenge the president if it achieves debate and a substantial, though minority, vote in favor. But it also will reveal a lack of Democratic unity in both houses. According to one ranking insider, "the mood...seems to be granting the administration some additional time as the new troops deploy. It may not be the right strategy but it suits most people politically."
A troop withdrawal deadline is seen by peace advocates as an incentive to draw the Taliban into peace talks, directly and indirectly. There are behind-the-scenes debates already underway over providing safe-passage documents which would enable Taliban leaders to enter Kabul or a third country for political negotiations, which Karzai favors. Former United Nations envoy Kai Eide supports negotiating with the Taliban too, but the US State Department and Pentagon are so far opposed both to negotiations and safe-passage documents.
Meanwhile, some Congressional staff and peace advocates are evaluating a menu of demands to make as possible amendments fleshing out an exit strategy in the budget battles ahead, among them:
§ ending the Iraq War according to agreements already supported by the Obama administration. Currently, existing Congressional budget language supports the timelines of (1) a US-imposed deadline of this August 3 for all US combat forces to be withdrawn, and (2) the US- Iraq pact's official December 31, 2011, deadline, when all remaining troops and contractors must leave Iraq, and bases shut down or handed over to the Iraqi government;
§ requiring all-party talks in Afghanistan leading to new internationally supervised elections, including elements of the Taliban, as a condition of funding;
§ conditioning further humanitarian and educational aid on protections for Afghan women's rights, and recognized human rights standards for detainees;
§ replacing ISAF troops in Afghanistan with peacekeepers from non- aligned countries, particularly from Islamic-majority ones;
§ challenging drone attacks as pre-emptive invasions of Pakistan's sovereignty to perform of secret extra-judicial killings, which result in large-scale civilian deaths and alienate the population.
The strongest peace movement argument would seem to be about budgetary impacts in a time of chronic recession. According to Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, Iraq alone will become a three-trillion-dollar war. The Congressional Research Service says that the direct costs now reach $1.08 trillion, including $748 billion for Iraq, $340 billion for Afghanistan and $29 billion for "enhanced security."
As McGovern points out, "there is a price to be paid, in roads falling apart, emergency rooms closing down, finite resources that should be invested in putting people to work, but instead going to two wars."
That will be weighed against Democratic concerns about opposing the president during an election year.
But the measure floated by Representative Barbara Lee to cut funding for the escalation may receive support from as few as fifty or sixty members. Spending taxpayers' money without end on unfunded wars of unknown duration doesn't sound like fiscal wisdom, but when it comes to the Long War, both parties are loaded with big spenders.