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Rep. John Garamendi on Afghanistan: Without a Withdrawal Plan, “There’s Going to Be a Revolt” in Congress

In addition to seeking counsel on Medicare and taxes, House Democrats pressed President Obama yesterday in that White House meeting on Afghanistan. Because of deficit hysteria or Anthony’s Weiner or whatever, we don’t hear a lot about Afghanistan. But Democrats are united in their concern that we are muddling through a war without a strategy and without end. When you have members like Norm Dicks, the Senator from Boeing, saying that the President cannot ignore “war fatigue” in Congress and that “the American people would overwhelmingly like to see this brought to a conclusion sooner than 2014,” it’s worth sitting up and taking notice. 204 members of Congress voted for a quicker timeline for withdrawal last week, including all but 8 Democrats.

A big factor will be the July transition, and the decision on how many troops will be withdrawn at that time. Congress, particularly House Democrats, are focusing heavily on that announcement. Jim McGovern (D-MA) told the President yesterday that a token withdrawal would be met with “outrage” by the public, who are tired of “endless wars.” He didn’t seem too pleased with the response he got, which was noncommittal. The President has yet to announce or even collect recommendations from commanders on the size of the drawdown. Gen. David Petraeus is returning to Washington in the middle of this month for confirmation hearings to be CIA Director, and will give his recommendations at that time.

“If the President does not come forward with a detailed plan to move quickly out of Afghanistan, and talk about what’s going to be left behind, there’s going to be a revolt,” said Rep. John Garamendi, who recently returned from a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the region. “Coming back and talking to colleagues, there’s a very powerful movement on this war, both Democratic and Republican. People don’t believe this war’s going well and they don’t think it’s going to change.”

Garamendi visited Afghanistan to get a closer look at special operations forces in the region. He is committed to changing the mission in Afghanistan from counter-insurgency to counter-terrorism, removing 90% of the forces and 90% of the costs while engaging in a political settlement and a limited mission against any reformation of terrorist groups. Garamendi praised the special operations forces as “extraordinary individuals doing exceptional work,” and saw them engaged in community development work not unlike what he did in the 1960s in the Peace Corps. “I came away impressed by a military that’s doing the wrong mission,” he said.

The trip only confirmed in Garamendi’s mind that the military operation should be reduced, the mission focus should change, and the only solution included a political reconciliation to manage the interlocking internal conflicts raging in the region. He said that Gen. Petraeus briefed him on the creation of a “strong central government” in Kabul, but that given the history of Afghanistan, this was ludicrous. “That country has never had a strong central government. They had regional, tribal leaders that had a feudal relationship with the king, who managed disputes between regions and maintained power.”

Garamendi continued. “Most of insurgency is by these local power structures who want to regain their power. It’s not a traditional civil war, it’s a six-sided civil war. There has to be a negotiated settlement, and some accommodation with the regional power centers or tribes.”

Garamendi envisions a small counter-terrorism mission of no more than 3-5,000 special forces, to “make it clear” that we are not abandoning Afghanistan and that we will not tolerate terrorist organizations posing a threat. He admitted that there’s no evidence such groups are there now, at least not with the ability to project power beyond their borders. But he sees a need for this small force to ensure against their resumption. And then additional diplomatic aid (to arrive at a settlement, and some of those talks have already begun) and economic and social aid (particularly in agriculture, education and infrastructure development) needed to be maintained. “I’m surprised that USAID is not looking at solar and wind, and distributed power. How the wind blows there. You could set up small community co-op power rather than linking into a big power grid,” he said. I’m not sure that those kinds of projects would have good value over time; Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote today about a study showing how those kinds of reconstruction projects in war zones are inherently unsustainable and prone to falling apart after a few years, due to inadequate maintenance.

Overall, Garamendi thinks you could reduce 90% of the troops and the funding and have a far greater potential for success. And the focus on the money is critical. “The deficit is playing into this big time,” he said. “With the numbers I put together, that’s probably $750 billion over three years that could be saved. That’s a lot of money, especially when people are looking for savings.”

When Garamendi talked to Petraeus, he told him that the July deadline was an “important event” that would be watched closely by Congress. “I wanted him to know it was serious, and that I expected a meaningful drawdown over the next year and a change in mission,” he said. Petraeus responded that he would return to Washington in the middle of the month with an array of options that he would present to the President. Garamendi respected this process, but wanted to emphasize to Petraeus the gravity of the moment. The wars could really face a reckoning in the next month.

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David Dayen

David Dayen