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Exit Strategies for Afghanistan and Iraq


It’s been a long winter for the peace movement. Waiting for Obama has proved fruitless. The Great Recession has strengthened Wall Street and diverted attention from the wars. The debate over healthcare still won’t go away and has demoralized progressive advocates. Given a chance to exit from Afghanistan when the Karzai election proved to be stolen, President Obama escalated anyway, but also promised to "begin" exiting almost before an opposition could mobilize at home.

Representative Dennis Kucinich will step into the crosswinds this week and force the House of Representatives to wake up, pay attention, and vote up or down on the Afghanistan war. The Kucinich initiative at least will reveal where Congress stands. Whether it will energize the peace movement for upcoming March protests or beyond is unpredictable.


Kucinich, interviewed along with other members of Congress by The Nation last week, is introducing a so-called privileged resolution requiring the House to hold a three-hour debate this coming Wednesday, followed by a vote on the Afghanistan war. The vote is expected to authorize the war, but passage of Kucinich’s initiative would require a withdrawal in thirty days. If the president rejected such a decision, the withdrawal would be delayed until the end of 2010, nine months from now.

"It’s time to force a debate," Kucinich says. "It’s not enough to slow-walk the end of the war." On Friday Kucinich had seventeen co-sponsors for his measure.

The Kucinich bill is based on the 1973 War Powers Act, passed during the upsurge of Congressional opposition to the unilateral war-making of the executive branch during the Richard Nixon era. The War Powers Act, strongly opposed by Bush-era officials including Dick Cheney and John Yoo, was based on Article I, Section 8, of the federal Constitution, which, according to James Madison, "expressly vested" the power to "declare" war in Congress.

According to Gary Wills’s history in Bomb Power, the War Powers legislation actually diluted Congressional authority by making declaration of war a joint exercise with the White House. Nonetheless, the symbolic threat to presidential prerogative inflamed Cheney into describing it as a Congressional usurpation. Yoo, the author of the notorious torture memos in the Bush administration, went so far as to argue that "declare" in the eighteenth century meant simply to "recognize[d] a state of affairs."

The Kucinich measure seeks to remind Congress of the peak progressive moment when, in tandem with a vast antiwar movement in the streets, Richard Nixon was forced to resign and the Vietnam War was terminated. A decade later, Congress again would play a key role in the Iran/Contra hearings during the Reagan era.

But Wednesday’s vote may be a measure of how much Congress has continued to surrender its war-making prerogative to the administration. Many liberal Democrats interviewed for this article expressed discomfort or exasperation towards the Kucinich measure, claiming that it will be overwhelmingly defeated and weaken efforts this spring to introduce antiwar amendments during debate on the war budget.

In one member’s view, the Kucinich proposal represents "complete and total withdrawal now," which most in Congress refuse to support. A more common complaint, voiced in a memo from Peace Action, is that "some of our allies on the Hill are concerned that the relatively low amount votes for this resolution may make us look weak."

Another member said, "You can’t stop Dennis, he does this all the time, he squeezes members who aren’t consulted." Another, who intends to vote for the Kucinich proposal despite having had no input, said bluntly, "A shitty vote has consequences."

Meanwhile, on Afghanistan, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is in disarray. Leadership on Afghanistan issues has been passed to Representative Mike Honda, a progressive Democrat from San Jose, who last year circulated a dramatic exit proposal that would flip US Afghan spending from 80 percent military to 80 percent civilian. Honda’s staff did not return calls from The Nation requesting further information.

Progressive Caucus co-chair Lynn Woolsey is up in arms against progressive Democrats who are supporting Marcy Winograd, an antiwar citizen-candidate running against hawkish Representative Jane Harman in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. Woolsey now refuses to work with "outside groups" such as Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) who are backing Winograd’s primary bid. Woolsey also opposed last year’s forums on Afghanistan sponsored by Democrats including Honda and CPC co-chair Raul Grijalva. Woolsey simply says the US shouldn’t be in Afghanistan, but nothing more, which leaves her isolated from peace groups and leaves her own colleagues searching for strategies.

During the Iraq war, the congressional Out of Iraq caucus represented a bloc of 70. Nothing on that scale exists for Afghanistan and Pakistan and few are paying attention to the continuing tensions in Iraq. The Out of Iraq Caucus appears dormant or dissolved, despite the growing threats to Obama’s plan for a phased withdrawal of all troops from Iraq by 2012.

Just ahead are debates over the $33 billion funding request for Obama’s troop escalation, and the $159 billion for Afghanistan and Iraq contained in the proposed military budget. Despite significant opposition among Democrats to the president’s escalation proposal, it is highly unlikely that the funds will be turned down now that American troops have been dispatched. Whether a vote will be taken on Representative Barbara Lee’s proposal to block the $33 billion in funding is unclear at the moment. But sizeable opposition is expected to rally around exit strategy measures being jointly contemplated by Representative Jim McGovern and Sen. Russ Feingold this spring.

Despite White House opposition, McGovern was able to win support from a majority of Democrats last year for his resolution calling on the Pentagon to report an Afghanistan exit strategy by year’s end. With the president having committed to an exit strategy by beginning troop withdrawals by summer 2011, McGovern’s measure might gain greater traction. He told The Nation he will introduce a revised version of the exit strategy resolution in the coming weeks.

Feingold’s public thinking on Afghanistan hasn’t changed since December when he opposed the president’s escalation, according to the Wisconsin senator’s staff. Feingold previously has proposed a "flexible timetable for reducing our troop levels" and opposed the defense appropriations bill because of its inclusion of Afghanistan funding.

Feingold and McGovern are expected soon to cooperate in proposing an exit strategy that contains a timetable for troop reductions. Defining such an exit plan quickly is key to the administration’s policy for Afghanistan, since the negotiated departure of US troops won’t happen without one. And most observers of Afghanistan say the Taliban cannot be drawn into a peace process or political negotiations without a concrete assurance that the military occupation will end and US/NATO/USAF troops will be withdrawn or replaced by peacekeepers.

Secret talks with the Taliban have intensified since spring 2009, the respected Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote recently in The New York Review of Books. Rashid is an official adviser to the US diplomatic team led by Richard Holbrooke. In a recent essay he floats a negotiating scenario which seems quasi-official and, of course, is officially deniable. His seven-point proposal includes lifting current sanctions on Taliban leaders so that talks can occur in a neutral venue, formation of a legal Taliban political party in Afghanistan and a seriously-funded "reconciliation body" to create security for returning Taliban members to Afghanistan.

Rashid’s proposal implies, but does not include, a US troop withdrawal, the key condition demanded by the Taliban in exchange for starting all-party talks. It is possible that Obama’s pledge to "begin" withdrawing in 2011 is an initial signal of the intention the insurgents want to hear.

In that case, the McGovern and Feingold initiatives can be crucial to moving the United States, Afghan and Taliban positions closer to a formula for reconciliation or, more likely, coexistence. The only alternative is the perpetuation of the neoconservatives’ Long War scenario, at trillions of dollars in budget expenditures and/or an outbreak of civil war in Afghanistan.

Whether Congress has the backbone seems to depend on whether there is the force of public opinion to implant one. The previous experiences of Vietnam, Central America and Iraq have shaped a skeptical mood within that public, but it is not sufficiently angry yet to force the end of the war. A deepening battlefield quagmire will only cement that skepticism, but Congress has to channel the public mood into political impact.

Congress’s inherent problem is its failure to collaborate with grassroots opinion in fostering public antiwar sentiment. Instead, as with the Kucinich measure, at most the members of Congress expect activists to endorse, support, leaflet, bird-dog and light up the phone lines to pressure other members to vote their way. Too often they fail to use their enormous resources to bring attention and public engagement to issues not (yet) arousing public opinion or media interest.

Tellingly, the CIA’s secret war in Pakistan, which includes the escalation of drone attacks, has drawn no meaningful Congressional opposition. The likely reason is that, with the exception of reports by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, the casualties and costs of the drone war have been hidden from the American public.

The re-emergence of a coherent peace movement could help push the McGovern and Feingold measures forward, and also mount pressure for hearings on the secret war before it engulfs Pakistan. The protests planned nationwide in March will revive needed attention to Afghanistan in many local areas around the country. But on the national level, the demise of United for Peace and Justice leaves a vacuum that narrow ideological groups are unable to fill. The dispersal of protest energies towards other issues–Wall Street bailouts, healthcare, Copenhagen, marriage equality–weakens any possibility of a unified focus around Afghanistan.

Despite these organizational obstacles, the ongoing wars will inflict serious political and moral consequences. Without a greater role by the organized peace movement, large numbers of voters will become passive, or drop away, during the forthcoming Congressional elections and the next presidential one. The Obama administration has never treated the peace constituency as one worth cultivating, though the Iraq War was the critical issue difference in the primaries and general elections in 2006 and 2008. In turn, the peace constituency has never turned into a permanent, organized, well-funded lobbying force in Washington–except for the brief flare-ups like those of MoveOn in the 2004-06 cycle.

As a result, everything may depend on whether popular perception is that Obama and the Democrats have turned promises of peace into action. At the moment, such potential support is being drained into despair. Congress and Obama will have to work to bring it back.

Tom Hayden, a former California state senator, is the author, most recently, of The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama (Paradigm).

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