Why is the NDAA Trying to Keep Us in Afghanistan? | Opinion

The last time the United States Congress debated and voted on authorizing U.S. military force, the year was 2002. The world was a very different place at that time. George W. Bush was President of the United States; Ashanti had one of the most popular songs on the airwaves; and Frasier was still on television. The U.S. has been militarily involved in at least eight countries since that time, from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Syria and Niger. Yet with the exception of a few lawmakers such as Ro Khanna, Matt Gaetz, Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul, Congress as an institution has been largely content with avoiding the tough votes on war and peace while critiquing the policy within the safe confines of the peanut gallery.

Curiously, Capitol Hill finds a way to assert itself in the U.S. foreign policy conversation when U.S. troop reductions or withdrawals are on the table. In other words: the very same members of Congress who aren't comfortable with voting to send Americans in uniform into harm's way are often more than willing to vote to keep them there. The result has been a nearly twenty-year stretch of a runaway executive branch under three consecutive U.S. administrations determining when and where U.S. military force should be used—all without the slightest pushback from Congress, the body most accountable to the American public.

The unveiling of the compromise 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, set to be voted on this week, is the most recent example of this disturbing trend. The product of months of congressional negotiations, the 3,652-page annual defense policy bill attempts to make U.S. troop drawdowns in several countries—including those that have been at peace for more than 70 years, such as Germany—more complicated. Using the NDAA as a vehicle, Congress is trying to codify these limitations despite the fact that an increasing percentage of the American people want a more restrained foreign policy after two consecutive decades of endless deployments.

According to the draft bill, no funds are permitted to be used for the reduction of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Germany, and South Korea until the Defense Department submits a series of reports and assessments to Congress explaining why those reductions are in the U.S. national security interest. As one might expect, the reporting requirements pertaining to the ongoing Afghanistan withdrawal are the most strenuous and time-consuming—information that includes an explanation on how a withdrawal would impact the NATO mission in the country and the Afghan national security forces' capacity to operate on its own.

Congress, of course, has the right to request this information from the White House. The legislative branch is the chief oversight body of the U.S. government; members of that branch are therefore responsible for ensuring difficult questions are asked, the executive is implementing policies wisely and efficiently, and there is a measure of accountability in the U.S. policymaking process.

But one can't help wonder why Congress is only now just getting involved in the broader policy discussion about Afghanistan.

Lawmakers have had numerous opportunities to press U.S. national security officials about policy, war strategy, and resource allocation and press the Trump administration for details on the U.S. role in the intra-Afghan peace talks. Yet by and large, Congress as a whole has been missing in action, preferring to discuss these things behind closed doors. The last time the Senate Armed Services Committee held an open hearing on Afghanistan with a high-ranking U.S. official was June 2018, during the nomination of Gen. Scott Miller to lead U.S. and NATO forces in the country. One has to go all the way back to October 2017 to find the latest instance of the House Armed Services Committee grilling a U.S. official about the war. What attention lawmakers have given to the war has come in the form of press releases and occasional remarks on the House and Senate floor. A serious, substantive, facts-driven debate about why keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan is a smart course of action has been substituted with vague references about terrorist safe-havens that are meant to kill a withdrawal before it happens.

Whether the draft NDAA is signed into law is in many ways beside the point. The larger point is this: at a time of record $3.1 trillion deficits and first-order priorities at home, Congress is essentially signaling to the American public that it is willing to vote in favor of perpetuating a "strategic stalemate" at a cost of tens of billions of dollars to the American taxpayer. Or to put in more boldly: Congress is more interested in preventing presidents from ending fruitless, expensive, counterproductive wars than it is in authorizing a president to use military force as spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.

The legislative branch is free to ask the Trump administration how a U.S. withdrawal would affect peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But with the war in its 20th year and the top U.S. military officer himself publicly admitting how little success Washington has had in building a functioning, self-sufficient Afghan state, those who seek to keep the status-quo alive should no longer be afforded the benefit of the doubt.

Daniel DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, a contributor to the National Interest and a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.