By John Nichols
Barbara Lee has always had the clearest vision when it comes to the US role in Afghanistan—and the rest of the world.
The California congresswoman cast the sole votein the US Congress against the Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As a veteran congressional aide and legislator who has a long history of highly engaged and thoughtful involvement with global issues, Lee did not oppose responding in appropriate and necessary ways to genuine threats to the United States. But she feared the open-ended authorization would become a blank check for endless war in the targeted country of Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Lee was right. On October 7, 14 years after the launch of the Afghanistan War, she noted that it has become “our nation’s longest war” and said that “sadly, there seems to be no end in sight. Despite a war-weary public, calls continue to keep more U.S. troops in Afghanistan for many more years.”
On Thursday, President Obama listened to the calls for more war—as opposed to the wise counsel of the congresswoman who has so consistently been correct in her assessments of the folly of endless war making in distant lands.
The president, who was elected with the strong support of Congresswoman Lee and other war foes, announcedthat the planned withdrawal by US forces from Afghanistan would be suspended. Instead, current troop levels of roughly 10,000— along with the full capacity for air strikes, like the October 3 one that devastated the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz—would remain in place through 2016. While Obama suggested that the Afghan military is “fully responsible for securing their country,” his decision to maintain US troops levels effectively guarantees that the United States will remain deeply involved in Afghanistan until after the president leaves office in early 2017.
What that means is that a third presidential administration is likely to continue cashing the “blank check” that Congress issued—despite Lee’s objection—in the eighth month of George W. Bush’s presidency. Though the issue has been little discussed by contenders in the 2016 presidential race, it is now all but certain that the next president, Democrat or Republican, will be the commander-in-chief of a war in Afghanistan that was never properly declared and that has always lacked sufficient congressional oversight.
The prospect that the longest war in American history will keep getting longer, and that new presidents may extend and redefine that war with scant input from Congress, has frustrated Congresswoman Lee for years.
As she said last week, “This war has already cost our nation too much. It has sacrificed the lives of 2,350 of our brave servicemen and women, including six in the first seven days of this month. Additionally, this war has taken the lives of thousands of Afghans and servicemen and women from our coalition and NATO partners.”
“Similarly,” added Lee, “this war’s price tag, totaling more than $715 billion, continues to undermine our national security and prevents investments in important domestic priorities. In fact, every hour this war costs taxpayers $4 million.”
Congresswoman Lee has worked with colleagues in both parties who are serious about reasserting the constitutionally mandated duty of Congress to provide clear authorization and steady oversight for wars. The vehicle for this in recent years has been H.R. 1303, a legislative initiative that argues that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force “has been used to justify an open-ended authorization for the use of military force and such an interpretation is inconsistent with the authority of Congress to declare war and make all laws for executing powers vested by the Constitution in the U.S. government.”
Congresswoman Lee’s proposal would repeal the limitless Authorization for Military Force (AUMF). At that point, Congress would be brought back into the process, as a debate would be opened on the question of whether to authorize a continued US presence in Afghanistan—and, even if that presence is authorized, to potentially place limits on its scope and character.
“In 2001, I opposed the authorization for this war because it empowered any President to wage endless war without the Congressional oversight mandated by the Constitution. Fourteen years into this war, this endless war continues and Congress continues to abdicate its Constitutional responsibility,” says Lee, who adds, “It is past time to end this costly and bloody war and restore Congress’s constitutional duty to debate matters of war and peace.”