WASHINGTON ― President Barack Obama announced Friday that he’s keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan past 2016, breaking a campaign promise to end the war before leaving office.
Cue the outrage from progressives in three, two, one…
Democrats on Capitol Hill are largely backing the president’s plan to turn the 14-year war into an even longer one. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, the hub of anti-war sentiment on Capitol Hill, has been silent since Obama’s announcement. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a tepid statement about the president making his decision with “caution and solemnity.” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not made a public statement of any kind.
Both of the 2016 Democratic presidential front-runners, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), are supporting Obama’s decision as well.
The Huffington Post looked around for Democratic lawmakers opposed to keeping the U.S. engaged in conflict in Afghanistan. After all, they’ve been critical of the war’s costs and its strategies for years. We found two.
“I’m very saddened,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). “History has shown there’s no military solution in Afghanistan. We have to make sure the region has stability, but the Afghans have to be in the lead. They have to secure the region for themselves. We’ve been there, and it hasn’t worked.”
“The idea of just spending billions and billions and billions of dollars more in this war, I find disconcerting,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). “Not to mention the fact that we continue to put our brave men and women in harm’s way. I’m not sure for what. I guess to control the Taliban? Are we just going to do this forever?”
The most likely reason Democrats aren’t protesting is that they don’t want to whack a president in their own party. They may also not want to complicate matters for Democratic presidential candidates by fracturing their party on war footing.
Obama’s plan is to keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016, before dropping to 5,500 at the end of 2016 or in early 2017. He’d originally planned to maintain only a small military presence based at the U.S. embassy there.
The White House emphasizes that those 5,500 troops won’t be there in a combat capacity, but rather will be “military personnel.” That means they’ll focus on counterterrorism operations and training Afghan soldiers, as opposed to patrolling valleys or mountains in search of Taliban insurgents. But that still leaves them in a dangerous situation. If there’s a terror threat that’s considered a risk to national security interests, those U.S. troops are prepared to engage.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said last week that it’s actually a good thing U.S. troops will be staying in Afghanistan.
“The fact that the president wants to expand those operations and continue that strategy is actually an indication that it’s working and that we’re seeing progress,” Earnest said in a Friday call with reporters.
When told of Earnest’s remarks, Lee laughed in disbelief.
“It’s just the opposite,” she said. “I think because it’s not going well, they’re going to extend things. Many of us in Congress wanted all of our troops brought home several years ago. The longer our military personnel remains in Afghanistan, the riskier it becomes for them.”
The decision to keep troops in the region opens the door to another debate on the need for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force. The president is currently using a sweeping, never-expired 2001 AUMF as his legal authority for military operations in Afghanistan. But that AUMF was passed in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, and nobody expected that it would still be in use so many years later. Some lawmakers have called for repealing the 2001 AUMF and passing a new one more narrowly tailored to current military campaigns. GOP leaders have shown no interest, though.
“One thing everyone can admit ― what we’re doing in Afghanistan today is far different from what people voted to do in Afghanistan 14 years ago,” McGovern said. “That was about going after Osama bin Laden and holding al Qaeda accountable. I’m not sure what our mission is now.”