Lawmakers in the House will get their first opportunity soon to vote up or down on continuing the Afghanistan war since the death of Osama bin Laden.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which will eventually fund $690 billion for the Pentagon and ongoing war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, passed the House Armed Services Committee yesterday. This is an increase of $22 billion over 2011, incidentally, at a time when all of Washington is crying about the budget deficit. The bill will reach the floor of the House soon. The bill even resurrects the now-defunct second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a boondoggle of a program that simply refuses to die.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) was the only dissenting vote out of sixty-one on final passage. He refused to vote for a defense authorization bill without a substantial reduction in troops and an alteration of the mission in Afghanistan. He penned an amendment to the bill that would do just that, but withdrew it from consideration in committee. However, he vowed to bring that amendment to the full floor, where he hopes for better success than in the more military-oriented Armed Services Committee. This is the entire text of the amendment:

SEC. 12xx. LIMITATION ON FUNDS FOR MILITARY OPERATIONS IN AFGHANISTAN AND RELATED PROVISIONS.

(a) LIMITATION ON FUNDS.—Amounts made available to carry out this Act for military operations in Afghanistan may be used only for purposes of counter-terrorism operations, including—
(1) locating and destroying terrorist cells within Afghanistan and the region; and
(2) providing for the continued training of the Afghan national police and military forces.

(b) REDEPLOYMENT OF U.S. ARMED FORCES.—The Secretary of Defense shall enforce a significant and swift drawdown of United States Armed Forces from Afghanistan consistent with the specific goals described in subsection (a).

Garamendi just went out with a Dear Colleague letter to whip up support for the amendment when the defense bill hits the floor. This is the first time in 10 years that any amendment to cut funds for the expansive military operation in Afghanistan has gone into the defense authorization bill; it has previously taken other forms in the House. In the letter (which I’ll put at the end of this post) Garamendi asks his colleagues to “help end the longest war in our history” by narrowing the mission to counter-terrorism, and bringing the troops home.

The last time Congress voted on withdrawal from Afghanistan was on March 17, and withdrawal got 93 votes, including 8 from Republicans. Since then, Osama bin Laden has been killed in a counter-terrorism mission in Pakistan, taking some of the rationale for war away. Several members in both parties have since questioned the mission in Afghanistan and whether the pace of withdrawal could be accelerated. While other members, like Jim McGovern (D-MA), have put forward Afghanistan withdrawal bills, this amendment to the NDAA will be the first opportunity to actually check the numbers for withdrawal in a post-bin Laden environment.

Garamendi was one of eight members of Congress, four from each party, who sent a letter to the President urging a shift in terrorism strategy and an end to the war in Afghanistan. He expects all four of those Republicans to join him in voting for this amendment on the floor.

I asked Rep. Garamendi if there was a commitment to allow this amendment to reach the floor. All too often we have seen the Republicans enact closed rules and block the possibility of amendments from the minority party. “As of now the answer is yes,” he said. “The Commitment has been made to committee members that there would be an open rule, and that was reaffirmed last night during the amending process. It’s always subject to change, but I think we’ll get this on the floor.”

In the Dear Colleague letter, Garamendi cited the cost of the war, over $120 billion a year. At a time when Washington is wrangling over the debt limit, Garamendi wouldn’t rule out injecting this amendment into the debt limit vote if that ever comes up on the floor (though I’d imagine that would be a closed rule). “That was attempted in the continuing resolution,” said Garamendi, “and I think with the debt limit you’ll see several types of amendments along those lines. Not just with respect to Afghanistan, but expenditures in the defense authorization bill.”

In addition to the war in Afghanistan, Garamendi wants to amend the NDAA to strip the redefinition of the Authorization to Use Military Force, which Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon wrote into the bill. Garamendi said that Republican Walter Jones (R-NC) tipped him off to the new language. “It’s extraordinarily broad … It allows for open-ended military operations anywhere in the world, and incarceration of anybody suspected to be a terrorist.” Two approaches are being offered for the amendment – to simply repeal the language and keep the initial AUMF (which the Pentagon views as sufficient), or to “rewrite it in a more narrow fashion.” Garamendi will join with many House Democrats to write that language out of the NDAA. “Republican members came up to me and said, ‘you’re onto something here, this needs to be carefully looked at,” Garamendi said.

The war limitation amendment isn’t going to pass. But it’s important to test the waters on it as much as possible. More Republicans could break with the leadership. More Democrats could come around to join the majority of the US public. As Garamendi stated, “We’re doing what we can to bring this war to a quicker end than it is at the moment.”

UPDATE: Politico writes about war fatigue in the GOP caucus. We’ll be able to gauge that with this vote.

Here’s the full Dear Colleague letter, on the flip.

Dear Colleague:

In order to strengthen our national security, I urge you to help end the longest war in our nation’s history by supporting my amendment that narrows our mission in Afghanistan to a limited counter-terrorism strategy and calls for a swift and significant withdrawal of U.S. troops. I first offered this amendment at the Armed Services Committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but withdrew it to modify the language. I now plan to offer the amendment during Floor consideration.

In the face of an ongoing international terrorist threat and economic instability at home, it is time to realign our policy in Afghanistan with our national security goals. At a cost of $120 billion a year, our 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are currently confronting fewer than 100 members of Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, this international terrorist network expands its influence in places like Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and even the U.S. Our protracted nation-building strategy in Afghanistan undermines, rather than strengthens, our security, draining our resources at a time of domestic economic challenge and adding to our deficit.

We must maintain a laser-like focus on Al Qaeda, capitalizing on our military and intelligence advantages to track them down wherever they try to establish roots. The recent operation against Osama Bin Laden epitomizes the kind of precise and coordinated strategy that is effective against a decentralized enemy. We must also redirect our resources toward building up our own nation, moving toward a more balanced budget. Ultimately, America’s strength begins at home.

This is a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, and a time when decisions by Congress and the Administration will have a major impact on our national security, now and into the future. We owe it to our troops, and to our constituents, to ensure that not one extra dollar is spent, and not one more life is lost, in a war that is not vital to our national security.

Sincerely,

JOHN GARAMENDI
Member of Congress