We Must End This Tragedy

Some of my colleagues like to call Iraq “the central front in the war on terror.” But they don’t spend as much time talking about the other areas where al Qaeda and its affiliates are operating, nor do they recognize that the Administration’s singular focus on Iraq is depriving those other areas of the attention and resources they need.

Take Afghanistan, for example, where an already weak government is grappling with a resurgence of the Taliban and rising instability. Reports indicated that there has been a 20 to 25 percent increase in Taliban attacks in recent months. Because this administration seems blind to the threats to our national security outside of Iraq, Afghanistan has been relegated to the back burner for far too long, at grave cost to our national security.

Last week, President Bush met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in New York City, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly opening session, but according to news reports he made no mention of the Taliban’s resurgence. That’s a pretty big omission. After all, it was the Taliban that supported Bin Laden and provided him and his associates with sanctuary in the run up to 9/11, and shortly thereafter. President Bush was right to take us to war in Afghanistan. That was a war focused on those who attacked us on 9/11 and on the government that provided a safe haven to al Qaeda.

But with the 2003 invasion of Iraq we have been significantly distracted and the war in Afghanistan, once the main show, now has a supporting role, at best. As a result, al Qaeda has protected, rebuilt, and strengthened its safe haven in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. You only have to look at the front page of today’s Washington Post–and see the headline “Pakistan Losing Fight Against Taliban and Al-Qaeda” — to realize how dangerous this situation is to our national security.

We have taken our eye off the ball. The war in Iraq has shifted our focus and our resources. We are focused on al Qaeda in Iraq–an al Qaeda affiliate that didn’t exist before the war–rather than on al Qaeda’s safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In Afghanistan, the absence of adequate security and development has led to increased disillusionment with the national government, which has in turn resulted in increasing civilian support for the re-emerging Taliban. It goes without question that the vast majority of Afghans have no desire to return to the Taliban era, but the inability of President Karzai to extend control outside the capital has meant that much of the Afghan population suffers from pervasive fear and instability. We may see Afghanistan once again engulfed by chaos, lawlessness, and possibly extremism.

As long as Bin Laden and his reconstituted al Qaeda leadership remain at large, Afghanistan’s future can not be separated from our own national security. But with our myopic focus on Iraq — and so many of our brave troops stuck in the middle of that misguided war — we have lost sight of our priorities. Mr. President, we are attempting to help stabilize and develop Afghanistan “on the cheap,” and that just isn’t good enough.

Afghanistan is teetering on the edge. Pockets of insecurity across the nation are becoming strongholds for anti-government insurgents who are, in turn, exploiting the local population to support their anti-western agenda. This problem is compounded by the dearth of sufficient international ground troops, which has coincided with coalition forces using increased air attacks against insurgents. Those attacks carry a greater risk of civilian casualties, undermining our support among the populace. Although the majority of attacks on civilians are perpetrated by the Taliban and other insurgent groups, the lack of ground troops is seriously undermining our efforts in Afghanistan.

We also face instability and insurgent attacks in Iraq, of course. But unlike in Iraq, where 165,000 U.S. troops are stuck in a civil war that requires a political solution, in Afghanistan we are fighting with far fewer troops to protect and advance the political progress of the Afghan people. Our troops accomplished their mission in Iraq when they took out Saddam Hussein–maintaining a massive troop presence in that country just fuels anti-Americanism and serves as a recruitment tool for terrorists. We have not accomplished our mission in Afghanistan — denying a safe haven to those who aided and abetted the 9/11 attacks.

Instead of seeing the big picture–instead of placing Iraq in the context of a comprehensive and global campaign against a ruthless enemy, al Qaeda–this administration persists in the tragic mistake it made over four years ago when it took the country to war in Iraq. That war has led to the deaths of more than 3,700 Americans and perhaps as many as one million Iraqi civilians. It has deepened instability throughout the Middle East, and it has undermined the international support and cooperation we need to defeat al Qaeda.

The war in Iraq is not making us safer; it is making us more vulnerable. It is stretching our military to the breaking point and inflaming tensions and anti-American sentiment in an important and volatile part of the world. It is playing into the hands of our enemies, as even the State Department recognized when it said that the war in Iraq is “used as a rallying cry for radicalization and extremist activity in neighboring countries.”

It would be easy to put all the blame on the Administration, but Congress is complicit, too. With the Defense appropriations bill before us, we have another chance to end our complicity and reverse this President’s intractable policy. Finally, we can listen to the American people, save American lives, and protect our nation’s security by redeploying our troops from Iraq.

I understand that some members of Congress do not want to have this debate now, on this bill. They would rather keep the Defense appropriations bill “clean” and postpone Iraq debates until we take up the supplemental. I respect their views, but I disagree. Like it or not, this is, in part, an Iraq bill. It isn’t possible to completely separate war funding from regular DoD funding,. In fact, this bill pays for a significant part of our operations in Iraq. It is therefore appropriate and responsible that we attach language bringing that war to a close.

That is why I am again offering an amendment with Majority Leader Harry Reid to effectively bring the war to an end. Our amendment is very similar to the amendment we introduced last month to the Defense authorization bill. It would require the President to safely redeploy U.S. troops from Iraq by June 30, 2008. At that point, with our troops safely out of Iraq, funding for the war would be ended, with narrow exceptions for troops to do the following: provide security for U.S. government personnel and infrastructure; train the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF); and conduct operations against al Qaeda and affiliates.

In order to make clear that our legislation will protect the troops, we have specified that nothing in this amendment will prevent U.S. troops from receiving the training or equipment they need “to ensure, maintain, or improve their safety and security.” I hope we won’t be hearing any more phony arguments about troops on the battlefield somehow not getting the supplies they need.

Passing this amendment will not deny our troops a single bullet or meal. It will simply result in their safe redeployment out of Iraq. When I chaired a Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this year on Congress’s power of the purse, Walter Dellinger of Duke Law School testified about my proposal. This is what he said:

“There would not be one penny less for salary of the troops. There would not be one penny less for benefits of the troops. There would not be one penny less for weapons or ammunition. There would not be one penny less for supplies or support. Those troops would simply be redeployed to other areas where the armed forces are utilized.”

The Feingold-Reid amendment is a safe and responsible use of Congress’s power of the purse. It is the path we took in 1993, when, in the aftermath of the “Black Hawk Down” incident, the Senate overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the Defense appropriations bill that set a funding deadline for U.S. troop deployments in Somalia. 76 Senators voted for that amendment, sponsored by the current senior Senator from West Virginia. Many of those Senators are still in this body, such as Senator Cochran, Senator Domenici, Senator Hutchison, Senator Lugar, Senator McConnell, Senator Specter, Senator Stevens and Senator Warner. They recognized that this was an appropriate way to safely redeploy U.S. troops. With their support, the amendment was enacted and the troops came home from Somalia before that deadline.

In order to avoid a Rule 16 point of order, this amendment is slightly different from the version we offered last month. The new amendment only covers funds in the 2008 defense appropriation bill, and it omits the first two sections of the old Feingold-Reid amendment, which required the President to transition the mission and to begin redeployment in 90 days. In addition, the exceptions for operations against al Qaeda and for training the ISF are less detailed and restrictive than they were before. The intent is the same, but–after consulting with the parliamentarians–we have made these changes to ensure we are not blocked from getting a vote. The heart of Feingold-Reid–the requirement that our troops be redeployed by June 30, 2008–remains.

Some of my colleagues will oppose this amendment. That is their right. But I hope they will not do so on the grounds that we should keep the Defense appropriations bill “clean” or that brief debate and a vote on this amendment will somehow delay that bill. Passing a defense spending bill without even discussing the most important defense and national security issue facing our country is simply irresponsible. As long as our troops are fighting and dying for a war that doesn’t make sense–as long as the American people are calling out for an end to this tragedy–as long as the administration and its supporters press ahead with their misguided strategy — we have a responsibility to debate and vote on this issue, again, and again, and again.

By enacting Feingold-Reid, we can refocus on our top national security priority–waging a global campaign against al Qaeda and its affiliates. We can refocus on developing a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan that links together the policies and programs needed to establish a viable state there, and we can focus on the other areas around the world–from North Africa to Southeast Asia–where al Qaeda and its affiliates are operating.

The war in Iraq is the wrong war. It is overstretching our military and undermining our national security. It is time for this war to end.

This column is adapted from Senator Russ Feingold’s remarks delivered from the Senate floor today calling for a vote in the Feingold-Reid legislation to redeploy the troops by June 30, 2008 after which funding for open-ended military mission would end. The Feingold-Reid Amendment is co-sponsored by Senators Feingold, Reid, Leahy, Dodd, Kerry, Boxer, Whitehouse, Kennedy, Harkin, Sanders, Wyden, Schumer, and Durbin.


Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees.