By a vote of 62-33, the Senate endorsed a non-binding amendment (#3096) to the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act that seeks to expedite the transition of governance responsibility to the Afghan government by mid-2013, a full eighteen months before the current proposed full transition date of December 2014.
This amendment, while imperfect in many ways, signifies a very important step ensuring the President fulfills his promise to end the decade long U.S. war in Afghanistan. Perhaps more importantly, it puts on record the sense of the Senate—by way of around three-quarters of American public—that endless war in Afghanistan is unacceptable. The Pentagon will undoubtedly try to push the Obama administration to keep this war going, much as it did in 2009. Yet the Senate has now made clear that this would be unacceptable.
Another important aspect of this amendment is that it counters language in the House version of the FY13 NDAA, offered by House Armed Service Chairman Buck McKeon (CA), which seeks to maintain a “credible” presence in Afghanistan post 2014. An attempt to strike and replace this egregious language was not allowed by way of some shifty parliamentary procedural tricks employed by House leadership this past May. Having this language included in the Senate NDAA is now the only counterbalance to the ill-conceivedMcKeon language.
What does passage of this amendment mean going forward?
As is often the case, it depends. The House and Senate bills have to be conferenced before the President can sign them. Chairman McKeon will surely be on the Conference Committee, where he will work to keep his language. If he wins out, President Obama may sign the NDAA but issue a signing statement saying he will not honor the Afghanistan language. If Chairman McKeon is unable to keep his language, the president could sign an NDAA which holds him to his word on ending the war in Afghanistan.
It is also possible that—due to this and many other controversial aspects of the NDAA—President Obama may veto the bill as a whole. FCNL supports an administrative veto.
Ultimately, the importance of the adoption of this amendment comes down to one single factor: it changes the narrative around Afghanistan policy on the Hill. In truth, what the amendment says or does—it is non-binding, after all—is almost irrelevant. This effort—a culmination of years or work, countless hours and emails, and many a long nights—will, in the long run, be remembered as the time the Senate voted to expedite the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. That is how people will talk about this vote in coming months and that is the line the President can use to fend off those who would extend this war indefinitely.
For now, we will celebrate this small victory. But not for long, as there is still much work to be done.