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A Progressive Case for the Supplemental

06/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Congress and across the country, progressives are nervous about the increased troop commitments in Afghanistan. They see a degenerating, no-win situation. Some of them wish we could just get out now, and cut our losses, both in blood and money, perhaps politically as well.

But we can't abandon Afghanistan for moral reasons. The Taliban are thugs. We can't let them regain control for our own self-interest and for the sake of the people in the region. And the military is what we have right now. This is the dilemma. What the military actually does, on the ground and in the air -- now that we've realigned the policy and changed the leadership -- is the wait and see question.

Today, the House of Representatives will vote on the war supplemental -- some 96 billion dollars. This is an excruciating vote for many on the Left -- who want to support their new president, but decry the fact that less than 10% of the funds will go to non-military items. What to do? If I were a Member of Congress, I would vote for this supplemental but also insist on Rep McGovern's (MA) amendment to require an exit strategy. I would then direct my angst about the lack of humanitarian and governance dollars toward the larger debate about national security priorities when the defense authorization bill comes up next month.

The larger framework: President Obama--and Secretary Gates have not only talked about the need for a strategic shift away from reliance on military solutions for national security -- they have begun to take genuine steps to make it happen. The defense budget, for example, cut Cold War weapons spending. This cut was 17 years overdue, but it remains an important signal of intent. The Obama administration deserves some time. And after the supplemental passes, what progressives should do is increase efforts to redefine security through a much broader lens -- one that considers our social, political and cultural policies to be as important as military strength. The simple message is this: Today, our national security depends on skillful, smart people who are in the right place at the right time. Some will be in uniform, ideally most will not. Yet despite our own military advising dramatic change, our spending priorities are still looking backward for inspiration -- seeking a combat fix when that era is long gone.

The exit strategy. This is a completely reasonable requirement from Congress. What is an exit strategy? It's a process. In this case, it should be creating the conditions on the ground that marginalize the Taliban and take away its popular draw. In fact, since counter-insurgency should be 20% military and 80% political and economic -- it would be hugely helpful if the State Department generated this exit strategy. Progressives should well ask, what is the 80%? What's the plan? If the main criteria for exit is turning the momentum decisively against the Taliban -- we have to give Afghans a reason to want to do it. We can't do it ourselves.

The best counterinsurgency strategy is a government that works. Are we going to renovate Afghanistan's universities, its airports and other transport hubs, and the highways? Are we going to increase vocational training? Are we going to give preference to Afghan contractors, so they can be first in the line, rather than third or fourth after foreigners of every stripe? What is the plan for agriculture? Are we going to build refrigeration and drying facilities, so Afghans don't have to grow their food in one season, ship it to Pakistan with attendant corrupt customs charges on both sides of the border, and re-import it in another season? Are we going to set up demand chains? Are we going to make sure that we do price supports (the walnut trees cut down by the Russians take 12 years from planting to grow a usable crop), to sustain switchovers? And what about women? Are we going to do what it takes to spread literacy, commercial training, a degree of economic and social independence in a traditional society? What is the plan for water? Afghanistan has some of the most abundant water resources in the world, 90% of which flow out of the country unused. Are we going to rebuild a water and irrigation system? What about the elections? Will they be fair? Will we help prevent cheating, and also to help vet the desperately corrupt police? What about power? Afghanistan could get a lot of green, renewable energy. In many places it has the ideal topography and climate for it. How will that be harnessed? All of this must fit together in a coherent vision of programs that interrelate. It is up to the State Department and our development agency (USAID). And its not just writing a check. It has to be inclusive. Increasing Afghan capacity, consulting the Afghan people and bringing them into the process, especially those at the bottom.

It will turn out in the end, that some of the most radical ideas happen to be the most effective and cheap. And will be able to get us out of there on a finite timeline. We don't have to build a perfect state; we only have to get Afghanistan working well enough so the momentum is decisively against the Taliban, and be able to assure ourselves it will remain so when we leave. So the question is, what is State's plan to get Afghanistan to the tipping point in an upward direction? The faster State comes up with a compelling vision, and implementation plan that makes sense, and that actually empowers Afghans, the better. After all, local people know what material will stand up to winter, who around them sells bad stuff for high prices, and who is honest, where to find the best laborers, etc. We don't use any of this knowledge. It is our arrogance that is quite literally killing us, when the Afghans really want us to succeed and want to succeed themselves. Military presence in Afghanistan is costing billions a month. $10 billion a year on actually trying make the place livable would be cheap, and might well provide our way out. Afghans are practical. They are proud. Most of them have no real interest in jihad against the US, or in being ruled by the Taliban. A bottom up strategy -- one that includes civil society and hands decision making over to the locals -- is the best counterinsurgency plan.

The supplemental on the House floor today still contains billions of dollars for hardware not requested by the Defense Department. The above list is the opportunity cost for these shenanigans (i.e. what we could be doing instead). Progressives have fought well for their priorities in this supplemental bill. They have met with the president, conducted an entire series of oversight discussions on Afghanistan/Pakistan, and asked tough questions throughout. So tomorrow, when this vote is done, regroup, reinvigorate and realize that even more important battles to truly shift our national security priorities still lie ahead. With the public not paying attention and the conservatives unrepentant (watch the Cheney family echo chamber cheerleading for torture), progressives must be centrally involved in today's the national security debate. Indeed, the torture debate has parallel themes, are we a nation of laws? Or of violent and ineffective expedience? We are at a crossroads. So calling all progressives: We still need you all in this fight.

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