On Wednesday night, the House GOP leadership effectively conceded that they no longer have the votes in the House to sustain the current war policy in Afghanistan.
The Rules Committee, which is controlled by the House GOP leadership, blocked a bipartisan amendment offered by Reps. Jim McGovern, Adam Smith, Walter Jones and Ron Paul which requires the transition of U.S. combat operations to the government of Afghanistan by 2013 and the end of military operations by 2014, accompanied by the redeployment of U.S. troops; and indicates that Congress should authorize any deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
Given that the McGovern amendment is backed by the House Democratic leadership, and that a similar amendment by McGovern last May was backed by all but eight Democrats in the House, it is likely that almost all Democrats will back the McGovern amendment, if they are allowed to vote on it.
Thus, the main story is on the Republican side. Last year, 26 Republicans backed the McGovern amendment, and the total vote was 204 in favor and 215 against. So a switch of a small number of Republicans to the yes side would pass the amendment, if the House is allowed to vote.
Given the shift of the majority of Republican voter opinion against the war, it is not surprising that the House GOP leadership is afraid to allow a free vote. The McGovern amendment would likely pass, and the story would be that the House GOP leadership couldn't stop enough Republican defections to keep the amendment from passing, and that the House of Representatives was done with the war.
Even if efforts to bring the McGovern amendment to the floor fail, the House will still vote on the war. The Rules Committee allowed a sharper amendment offered by Reps. Lee, Conyers, Jones, Welch, and Woolsey that would end the war more quickly than the McGovern amendment by limiting funding to the safe and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops and military contractors from Afghanistan. If the American people were allowed to vote on the Lee amendment in a referendum, it would pass overwhelmingly. [If you would like your Representative to represent majority opinion, you can reach them through the Capitol Switchboard at FCNL's toll-free number: 1-877-429-0678. If you can't call, you can write here.]
The House will vote on a bipartisan amendment offered by Reps. Smith, Amash and many others, backed by the ACLU and many other groups, to clarify that indefinite detention is not legal in the United States, contrary to some interpretations of provisions of last year's NDAA. In extraordinary timing, this effort got a boost Wednesday when a judge ruled that the contested provisions of last year's NDAA are indeed unconstitutional. It is fortuitous that Congress now has a golden opportunity to fix last year's mistake.
And the House will vote on an amendment offered by Reps. Kucinich and Conyers that would prohibit the military from conducting drone strikes against unidentified targets -- so-called "signature strikes." To my knowledge, this is the first time Congress will have considered any attempt to limit drone strikes in any way.
Some things worth noting about the Kucinich-Conyers amendment to prohibit the military from conducting "signature strikes":
-- Whatever one thinks about drone strikes against specific suspected terrorist leaders, nothing in the amendment would prevent them. If the amendment were law and policy, it would not have prevented the recent killing of Fahd al Quso, the senior commander of al Qaeda's wing in Yemen, who was killed in a drone strike two weeks ago; he was specifically targeted based on intelligence indicating where he was. The amendment only prohibits the military from conducting a drone strike when it does not know who it is targeting.
-- The amendment only applies to the military, that is, to the Joint Special Operations Command, not to the CIA. According to press reports, JSOC is not carrying out drone strikes in Pakistan. According to the Washington Post, JSOC did not ask for authority to conduct "signature" drone strikes in Yemen, but they were granted it anyway.
-- According to the Washington Post, senior U.S. officials expressed concern about authorizing "signature" drone strikes in Yemen, both because it would increase the risk of civilian casualties, and because by killing "militants" who have a dispute with the Yemeni government but not with the U.S., such strikes would increase the perception that the U.S. is taking sides in Yemen's civil war.
-- Just in the last week, Yemeni officials say that a U.S. drone strike killed eight civilians in Yemen, CNN reported. [The New York Times reported the same attack without noting that Yemen officials said eight civilians were killed in a U.S. drone strike.]
-- If you were concerned by what the Administration did in Libya without Congressional authorization, you should be concerned by what the Administration is doing in Yemen without Congressional authorization. If the Administration wants to engage the United States in Yemen's civil war, it should ask for Congressional authorization to do that.
-- Senior U.S. officials have expressed concern that drone strikes in Pakistan are counterproductive: they cost the U.S. more in terms of Pakistani ill-will towards the United States and by destabilizing the Pakistani government than the benefit to the U.S. of killing low-level militants.
-- AP reported in April that signature strikes in Pakistan (conducted by the CIA in any event) have been all but curtailed. Thus, even if this amendment applied to the CIA, which it doesn't, ending "signature strikes" in Pakistan would merely formalize existing policy.
-- In the recent U.S.-Afghanistan partnership agreement, the U.S. pledged not to use Afghan territory to launch attacks on other countries. U.S. officials subsequently claimed that this would not obstruct drone strikes in Pakistan, because the U.S. has the right of "self-defense." But "signature strikes" are not self-defense: it cannot be "self-defense" to kill somebody if you don't know who they are.
Voting on these amendments is expected to begin in the late afternoon Thursday. There's still time to raise your voice.
Follow Robert Naiman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/naiman