British soldiers march through a poppy field in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The supplemental spending request passed last night in the Senate will fund the expansion of the US presence in Afghanistan. (Photo: AP)
The Senate approved $91 billion in funding for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan yesterday, with all senators but three voting for the bill. This, along with a House vote last week in favor of $97 billion, seals the deal for the Obama administration's first supplemental war spending request. The no-strings-attached legislation comes as a deep disappointment to progressive members of Congress, as well as to antiwar voters, many of whom hoped the Obama administration would mark a significant break with Bush-style war funding.
"If this were another Bush supplemental, progressives would definitely call it a blank check," Travis Sharp, military policy analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Truthout. "There are no benchmarks for progress in either the House or Senate bills. I found the House Appropriations Committee's justification for not including benchmarks to be comical: 'so-called benchmarks ... if they are too tough will bind the President's hands.' That's precisely the same language Republicans used to use to argue against Democratic attempts to place restrictions on Bush-era supplementals."
With yesterday's vote, Congress has approved more than $900 billion in funding for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq since the wars began.
Though President Obama has provided a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, his plan could leave 50,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely, according to a statement by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), one of the three dissenting votes.
The hefty supplemental also indicates that the US occupation of Afghanistan will drag on for quite some time, according to Jeff Leys, co-coordinator for Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Leys notes the allocation of funds for mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles specific to the terrain of Afghanistan, and a boost in spending for the Afghanistan Security forces and Afghanistan base construction.
"All of these point to a long-term expansion of US military operations in Afghanistan," Leys told Truthout.
The House last week rejected an amendment sponsored by Rep. Jim McGovern, which would have mandated "an exit strategy" for the war in Afghanistan. An amendment proposed by Rep. Barbara Lee, which would have required full withdrawal from Iraq in 12 months, was killed in committee.
In addition to war spending, the supplemental bill funds the production of four F-22 Raptors, the air force's most expensive fighter planes, which are not used in Iraq or Afghanistan and were designed to fight the Soviet Union. The House version also allocates more than $2 billion to procure C-17 transport aircraft, although Defense Secretary Robert Gates said late last month that the Pentagon has no additional need for the planes. President Obama did not seek funding for the C-17s.
The House and Senate versions of the bill now go to conference to be reconciled. Several differences must be resolved, including a House provision that requires the president to present an evaluation of the US's progress in Afghanistan in one year.
While the blow of another giant war supplemental hits hard at a time when the climate for big change seems right, the legislation isn't all bad news, according to Leys. The bill shows a large decrease in the funds allotted to the procurement of new weapons.
"This likely is due to a return to a more 'normative' manner of somewhat limiting the request to the 'incremental costs' of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, rather than the very expansive definition used in 2007 and 2008 that allowed the military to seek additional 'emergency' funds for the broader so-called 'global war on terror,'" Leys said.
Some of the procurement cuts may not be due to scaled-back military operations. There may be substantial funding left over from previous years' supplementals, according to Leys. And a Congressional Research Service report shows that the reductions can in part be attributed to a decline in the purchasing of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, which were bought in large numbers last year.
Still, the Obama war request is not simply an echo of Bush policy, according to Sharp, who says that the president's commitment to withdrawal from Iraq shows a change in mindset.
"President Obama has demonstrated through his Iraq policies that he is not mindlessly committed to perpetual war in the same way that President Bush was," Sharp said. "Obama has shown a willingness to cut bait, albeit cautiously, which is something you could never say about Bush."
Hope for a de-escalation of militarism isn't dead in Congress, either. While most of Congress acquiesced to the funding request, a number of antiwar members stood their ground.
In the House, 51 Democrats said no to the funding, including several who switched over at the last minute. Grassroots movements made an impact on this front, according to Carolyn Eisenberg, chair of the legislative working group of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). One hundred peace organization hand-delivered letters to each member of the progressive caucus, drawing their attention to the escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
"We have asked for reports from people around the country, and it is evident that in many instances the pressure led Reps to change their minds," Eisenberg said. "Example in Brooklyn: on the previous day, Cong Towns's legislative director told Brooklyn for Peace that he was going to sign on to McGovern and vote in favor of the supplemental. On Thursday he voted against the supplemental. The message we received from his legislative director read, 'At the last minute you all convinced him to vote no. Congrats.'"
Congress members who voted against the supplemental cited an overemphasis on military operations and a deprioritization of diplomacy and humanitarian aid. According to a UFPJ release, only 8 percent of the funding goes to nonmilitary projects.
Rep. Barbara Lee, who voted against the bill, noted that according to a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment, "the presence of foreign troops is the most important element driving the resurgence of the Taliban."
"The best way to help the Afghan people develop a stable and functioning state is to decrease our military presence and increase our use of diplomatic, development and reconstruction activities," Lee said in a statement.