By a 305-121 margin, the House of Representatives voted Thursday to transfer US combat operations to the Afghan government by the end of 2013. The amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act also expresses the sense of the Congress that the President must seek Congressional approval for any post-2014 by no later than June 1, 2104. All US forces are currently scheduled to depart by December 31, 2014.   

Politically, the development means that the Obama administration effectively lacks any congressional authorization for a permanent military occupation of Afghanistan, more than a decade since the broad green light was passed by Congress after 9/11. “Today is the first time in 12 years of war that a majority of the House of Representatives has voted to end the war in Afghanistan,” said Stephen Miles of the Win Without War coalition. 

Leadership on measure came from Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA), Walter Jones (R-NC), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Adam Smith (D-WA) and John Garamendi (D-CA). Similar language was contained in a 2012 bill by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), which passed on a 62-33 vote. Significantly, the proposal endorses “robust negotiations” toward a diplomatic settlement. Overall, the proposal offers bipartisan political cover for the Obama administration to speed up troop withdrawals and talks with the Taliban and other insurgencies. 

The administration has reduced its troop commitment from 105,000 to 68,000 since last year, a level that Pentagon commanders are advocating remain steady until late into 2014. All American ground troops are scheduled to depart by December 31, 2014, with NATO troops following the same schedule. Afghanistan’s presidential election is planned for late 2014 as well.

Diplomacy has been stuck for over one year since the Obama administration halted a deal in which captured US soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl would be released by the Taliban in exchange for several Taliban leaders held in Guantanamo. Congressional Republicans have opposed the deal in the past. 

As in the late stages of the Iraq War, Pentagon officials are pushing for a “post-war” occupation force of up to 15,000 Americans. President Obama has signaled his interest, as has President Hamid Karzai, but discussions remain inconclusive. In Iraq, time simply ran out and President Obama pulled all troops according to his proposed deadline. Iraq remains deeply divided and unstable, its government allied with Iran and its Sunni minority supporting resistance both in Iraq and Syria. 

Afghanistan is far more unstable than Iraq. Karzai’s government in Kabul is like Humpty-Dumpty, an inbred crony-capitalism culture chronically lacking a majority base. The resumption of civil war is a continuing possibility. How a sharply reduced US JSOC presence, including Night Raiders and drones, could succeed where over 100,000 American forces—200,000 including NATO—failed to exterminate the insurgency is unknown. 

Only a negotiated settlement might stabilize things, including full withdrawal of American troops and bases combined with assurances from Afghanistan, Pakistan and regional powers that Afghanistan will not be permitted to contain sanctuaries for Al Qaeda or jihadists bent on attacking Western targets. A power-sharing consortium, backed by regional powers, might be arranged after Karzai’s departure. Some in the national security establishment have suggested that the country devolve along ethnic-geographic lines into a de facto state of partition.