Yesterday, Senator Russ Feingold, Representative Jim McGovern, and Representative Walter Jones announced the introduction of legislation that – if it attracts enough support – could end the U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan, and bring the troops home.
The key idea of the bill is straightforward. By January 1 – or within 3 months of the enactment of the bill, if that is earlier – the President is required to submit to Congress a plan for the redeployment of the U.S. military from Afghanistan, with a timetable for doing so. After submitting the plan, the President has to update Congress every 90 days on how the implementation of the plan is going.
The bill allows Members of Congress to sign their names in favor of the all-important policy of having a timetable for military withdrawal, without everyone having to agree on a specific proposal for what the end date should be. Instead, it instructs President Obama to tell us what he thinks the plan should be.
The importance of establishing a timetable for military withdrawal cannot be overstated.
If you want to figure out how we are going to get the hell out of Afghanistan, the most obvious precedent to look at is: how are we getting the hell out of Iraq? And the answer is: with a timetable for military withdrawal, which is now the basis of a signed agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
U.S. officials have repeatedly conceded that the endgame in Afghanistan includes a negotiated political settlement between the Afghan government and the main insurgent groups in Afghanistan. Such a settlement will only be possible if it is supported by the United States, and the key chip that only the United States can bring to the negotiating table is willingness to agree to a timetable for military withdrawal. So long as the United States refuses to agree to a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces, a political solution is almost surely impossible. As soon as the United States is willing to agree to a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, a political solution is increasingly likely.
The adoption by the United States of a timetable for withdrawal – even a signal that the United States is willing to adopt a timetable for withdrawal, even a signal that a decisive body of opinion in official Washington is supporting a timetable for withdrawal – is likely to have dramatic political effects in Afghanistan, just as these things had dramatic political effects in Iraq. In 2007, Congress never succeeded legislatively in writing a military withdrawal timetable into U.S. law. But the fact that the majority of the House and Senate went on the record in favor of a timetable had dramatic effects in Iraq. It put pressure the Bush Administration to compromise its objectives, to start serious negotiations with people it had previously been trying to kill. It sent a strong signal to Iraqi political actors that the U.S. was leaving, and it was time to focus on where you wanted to be when the music stopped.
At the beginning of May, the Afghan government is convening a "peace jirga" to try to build a national political consensus for a peace agreement to end the Afghan civil war. That process is a thousand times more likely to succeed if it is supported by the United States, and the most important thing that Washington can do to help that process succeed is signal its willingness to adopt a timetable for military withdrawal. The Feingold-McGovern-Jones bill – if it attracts wide support in Congress and the country – could therefore be a key step to peace in Afghanistan.