Afghanistan: the view from the Hill

 In Afghanistan

At the end of July, Jon, Cara and I went to Washington, DC, for more than 30 meetings with members of Congress and/or their staff. In addition to raising our concerns about the current approach to Afghanistan and urging them to support alternatives, we wanted to gather information about what might be the best points of entry for building opposition to the current strategy given the challenging political landscape. Thus far, the only legislative vehicle with any momentum has been Rep. McGovern’s exit strategy bill, which was voted on as an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill. While we continued to urge support for that approach, we were also looking for other ways to impact strategy, like truly increasing civilian capacity and stopping airstrikes that kill civilians. Some observations from our meetings:

  • Congress is largely in “wait and see” mode on Afghanistan, with exceptions in the Progressive Caucus. This is partly due to the fact that a substantial amount of political energy is going into domestic priorities such as healthcare reform. There is also a generally accepted one-year deadline for Obama to make progress in Afghanistan, based on remarks Rep. David Obey (D-WI) made when Congress was voting on the supplemental funding for the war:

“The president feels obligated to give it a shot, and we’ll help him give it a shot for a year,” Obey said. “At the end of the year, I want to have a hard-nosed, realistic evaluation based on the performance standards we’re talking about.”

Obey compares this to the year he gave Richard Nixon in 1969 to show progress in Vietnam (apparently he did not learn from that experience that that time, and consequently lives, were wasted).  At this point it’s unclear exactly what Congress will do to challenge the strategy when that progress inevitably does not come about.

  • Many offices expressed concern about the civilian casualties caused by airstrikes and drone attacks, though few were ready to call for them to completely cease. I heard numerous people praise General McChrystal for his emphasis on reducing civilian casualties. While the rhetoric is admirable, however, good intentions and rules get lost in the chaos of battle. We saw the tragic consequences again this week, as four civilians were killed by a US strike. Questions have been raised in hearings about civilian casualties, and we urged members to speak out, but we will need to follow up and provide outlets for members of Congress to continue to shine a light on this problem.
  • One point we brought up in our meetings was that the resources put toward civilian capacity did not match the rhetoric about a “civilian surge.” Everyone wholeheartedly agrees that there needs to be an increased focus on the civilian aspects, but there is not a lot of creative thinking happening on the congressional level about how to use those resources most effectively, or how to adjust the ratio of funding to favor these critical civilian tools. As the Progressive Caucus pointed out in their recommendations, a typical counterinsurgency strategy invests 80% of resources in political tools, and only 20% into military. Due to years of neglect, many congressional offices lament the fact that the civilian agencies couldn’t absorb the additional resources if they were there. While this year saw a small increase in nonmilitary assistance to Afghanistan, we will need to look to influencing the 2011 budget request to continue to push things in the right direction, hopefully in a more dramatic way.
  • Related to the civilian capacity issue, we noted our concern that the Department of Defense is carrying out a number of development tasks through programs like the Commanders Emergency Response Program and Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Civilian aid workers have expressed frustration with the impediments to their work caused by the militarization of foreign assistance. While this is widely recognized as a problem, and many expressed a longer-term commitment to building capacity in our civilian agencies, there was not a clear short-term solution.
  • While few members of Congress were eager to mount a strong opposition to the current approach in Afghanistan (especially against a president of their own party), I did not hear anyone strongly defend the strategy either. Many people are skeptical about what the US can achieve, with some hanging their hopes on a “new” strategy, which doesn’t differ dramatically enough from the old one.

What do these insights mean for our organizing? One is that creative opposition to the war is not going to come from Congress—we need to generate ideas to raise questions about the efficacy of the current strategy. Rather than waiting for them to come up with vehicles, we must push our representatives to use outlets available like floor speeches, hearings, behind the scenes meetings, dear colleague letters and other non-legislative mechanisms.

The other piece is that the seeds of doubt are already there, with some progressive members speaking out strongly for a new approach. We can build upon that by mobilizing the public. After the deadliest month for US troops since the invasion in 2001, we have an opportunity to raise the same doubts in the public. A recent CNN poll shows this is already starting to happen: 54% of Americans say they oppose the war in Afghanistan, with only 41% opposing. Thus far, we have not effectively organized and educated the public to pressure Congress to oppose this disaster. It is incumbent upon us to take up this challenge and let Congress know we are not going away and we expect them to work for a better approach.

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