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Jim McGovern: “Think We Could Be Going for Permanent Bases” in Afghanistan

The Obama Administration may be looking at a “return on investment” type of theory in figuring out how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan this July. After the successes in degrading Al Qaeda, the need for a large force in the country has become less apparent.

As the Obama administration nears a crucial decision on how rapidly to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan, high-ranking officials say that Al Qaeda’s original network in the region has been crippled, providing a rationale for an accelerated reduction of troops.

The officials said the intense campaign of drone strikes and other covert operations in Pakistan — most dramatically the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — had left Al Qaeda paralyzed, with its leaders either dead or pinned down in the frontier area near Afghanistan. Of 30 prominent members of the terrorist organization in the region identified by intelligence agencies as targets, 20 have been killed in the last year and a half, they said, reducing the threat they pose.

Their confidence, these officials said, was buttressed by information found in Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. They said the trove revealed disarray within Al Qaeda’s leadership, with a frustrated Bin Laden indicating that he could no longer direct terrorist attacks by lieutenants who feared for their own lives.

However, there’s a double-edged sword here. The success of the counter-terrorism mission has been driven by drone attacks and covert operations. Those attacks need a base and a supply chain, and the Administration would like to keep that going in Afghanistan. “Everything we’re doing requires us to be there forever,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), leader of the Out of Afghanistan movement in Congress, to me at Netroots Nation 2011. “I think we could be going for permanent bases.”

That’s been pretty clear from the Administration’s actions over the past several weeks. The status of forces agreement they seek with Afghanistan clearly allows for a long-term presence, the only way that this security state they’re setting up in Afghanistan can be made sustainable. The shift, then, is from an on-the-books war in Afghanistan, to an off-the-books, CIA and JSOC-led war in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region, with Afghanistan used as the base. This ties in with the White House’s unique legal argument on Libya, that a war where soldiers have no opportunity to get hurt is not actually a war. This means that wars involving flying robots, which is the trajectory of our counter-terrorism efforts, can be launched unilaterally by the executive with no authority or oversight from Congress.

Remotely operated military machines weren’t invented for the purpose of shifting the balance of executive and congressional authority in warmaking, or for shifting the balance of national security power away from the military and toward the CIA. And in principle, there’s no reason existing statutes can’t be rewritten in order to clarify or rebalance things. But in practice the American political system makes it a huge uphill struggle to rewrite any statute. So unless congress is very strongly motivated to assert itself, which it’s not, you leave the field open to a pretty drastic shift in who’s in charge of bombing whom.

This, ultimately, is why people like Robert Gates, who at one level has talked about ending wars of choice, is simultaneously warning against a drawdown in Afghanistan. This shift to off-the-books wars needs the Afghanistan base, and security against Taliban fighters must be part of that, to keep the base safe and clear.

Even though very few Taliban have taken up the US on the offer to switch sides, and even though most of them are confined to the north, it’s still valuable, because clearing out and making secure just a portion of the country makes the bases safe enough to carry out the drone and covert ops wars.

The difference is the public doesn’t have the patience anymore to give the Administration the leeway to create their permanent bases. Polling shows massive support to limit US military involvement abroad. The US Conference of Mayors did indeed pass their resolution to bring war dollars home. And the Congress has had enough. If the withdrawal isn’t immediate and sustained “He will face a revolution in Congress,” said Rep. John Garamendi on one Netroots Nation panel. “The chant will be, hell no, we will go.”

Rep. McGovern added, “We said we’re getting out of Iraq and we still have 50,000 troops there. We never leave anywhere until we’re being chased.” McGovern expected a decision in the next week or so on Afghanistan, though the announcement may be as perfunctory as a press release. In a meeting with the Democratic caucus, President Obama intimated that the withdrawal would be inadequate. “He said something like, you won’t be happy and the GOP won’t be happy. He thinks he can be in the middle and be OK.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen