The American people have long been ahead of all but a few good politicians when it comes to the unacceptable costs of the war in Afghanistan, and the latest Rasmussen poll shows 59 percent of likely voters now want the troops home either immediately or within a year.
But maybe—just maybe—Congress is finally beginning to catch up.
“Like a slow train coming,” said Matthew Hoh, a former Marine who resigned his Afghanistan post in protest and now is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy.
Last week the cautious US Senate passed an amendment to an annual defense bill that would require President Obama to submit a plan for an expedited withdrawal that includes a timetable.
The previous attempt at similar legislation, introduced by former Senator Russ Feingold in May, garnered only eighteen votes. In June a bipartisan letter from twenty-seven senators urged only a “sizable and sustained” withdrawal of troops, but there was no call for a timetable. This time around Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley led the effort along with twenty cosponsors, including Republicans Mike Lee and Rand Paul, and it was approved by a majority voice vote with only the out-of-touch and increasingly irrelevant John McCain shouting, “No!”
“Romney and McCain have slammed President Obama for pulling US troops out faster than the Pentagon wants,” writes Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy, “but Wednesday night, the Senate said: ‘We think you aren’t pulling out the troops fast enough.’ ”
The amendment likely will next be taken up in a conference committee with the House where it has a good chance of making it into the final bill. (Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Republican Congressman Walter Jones are currently circulating a bipartisan letter to Obama urging an expedited withdrawal and reinvestment of those resources at home.) But whatever the outcome, Obama now has the political cover and pressure from Congress that was lacking two years ago when he announced his original surge plan, and last year when the administration announced that troops would remain through 2014.
“Most folks in the Senate like most folks in the country are tired of the war,” said Hoh. “Every week it’s one bad story after another—either there’s a tragedy, or an incident that highlights the absurdity of what we’ve gotten ourselves into. We can see that we’re in quicksand–the more you struggle, the more you thrash about, the more effort you put into it–the deeper you sink. So we’ve got to find a way to get ourselves out of there.”
Hoh believes that the Merkley amendment will come into play this May in Chicago when NATO holds a summit on its future in Afghanistan. The president will have the political support he needs to transition US troops more quickly. The meeting will also take place in the middle of the presidential campaign with popular opinion sending a resounding message.
“Politically the situation is completely different than it was two years ago, or even a year ago,” said Hoh.
Nation board member and peace activist Tom Hayden also sees an immediate impact of this vote.
“It sends a major message to Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai, who has been promoting a ten-year US commitment, and to the NATO/ISAF conference meeting Monday in Bonn,” he said. “The impetus to accelerated withdrawal [also] underscores the urgent need for political and diplomatic initiatives towards a power-sharing compromise.”
A half-trillion dollars later, and too many lives tragically lost or forever altered, the time to bring troops home is long overdue.
“The feeling that the war is ending, that there is no need to keep pushing for it, just isn’t true,” said Hoh. “It’s as violent as it’s ever been there, we’re further away from stability in Afghanistan and in the region than we’ve ever been, so certainly it’s not a victory yet in terms of getting us out of Afghanistan and getting a policy that will lead to stability in the region. But it’s an important step.”