Saving lives – and billions – in Afghanistan

The Merkley amendment to withdraw troops will save American lives and money – and it’s in line with public opinion.

US in Afghanistan
The Merkley proposal could save $200bn by ending operations in Afghanistan two years early [EPA]

Washington, DC – If Senator Jeff Merkley’s “expedite the drawdown from Afghanistan” amendment to the National Defense Authorisation Act makes a strong showing, it could tip the Obama administration towards a faster drawdown.

That would likely save hundreds of US and Afghan lives – not to mention all the people who wouldn’t be physically and psychologically maimed – and could easily save the US hundreds of billions of dollars, at a time when the alleged need for fiscal austerity is being touted as a reason to cut Social Security benefits and raise the Medicare retirement age.

Everyone knows the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” It’s a great motto to try to live by. But, unfortunately, in this life on Earth, “do no harm” isn’t always on the menu at the restaurant. Sometimes, you’re already doing harm, and there’s no feasible immediate path to zero harm. Sometimes the best you can do in the short run is to reduce the harm as much as possible. And if that’s the best you can do, then that is what you must do. It’s not politically feasible, unfortunately, to end the war tomorrow.

But we could take a big bite out of it in the next week. And that would save many lives and real money. [If you are a US citizen, you can ask your senators to co-sponsor the Merkley amendment here.] Merkley’s amendment (#1174) says:

1) The president should expedite the transition of security responsibility to the government of Afghanistan;

2) The president shall devise a plan for expediting the drawdown of US combat troops in Afghanistan and accelerating the transfer of security authority to Afghan authorities prior to December 2014; and

3) Within 90 days, the president shall transmit to Congress a plan with a timetable and completion date for the accelerated transition of all military and security operations in Afghanistan to the government of Afghanistan.

Current co-sponsors of Merkley’s amendment include: Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA).

Who is most likely to join these eight senators in supporting the Merkley amendment? One logical starting point is the 19 other senators, besides these eight, who signed Merkley’s letter to President Obama in June calling for a “sizable and sustained” drawdown of forces: Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT),  Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Beyond these twenty-seven, there are other Senators who have questioned the wisdom of keeping so many troops in Afghanistan.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking Republican on Senate Foreign Relations, said in May: “It is exceedingly difficult to conclude that our vast expenditures in Afghanistan represent a rational allocation of our military and financial assets.” The Republican presidential contest is revealing that, outside of the Beltway, most Republicans are not that jazzed about keeping a hundred thousand US troops in Afghanistan. The Merkley amendment gives us an opportunity to test whether we can induce more Republican senators to respond to Republican public opinion.

In a New York Times op-ed in July, Sens. Merkley, Paul, and Udall called for withdrawing all regular combat troops by the end of 2012, instead of by the end of 2014. The official US death figures for 2009, 2010, and 2011 are 317, 499, and 396 (so far). Shortening the war by two years could easily save a thousand American lives. At more than $100bn a year, shortening the war by two years could easily save $200bn (that’s just current expenditures – it doesn’t count the future cost of veterans’ health care, for example.) $200bn is 1/6 of the debt reduction target of the Supercommittee, so that’s real money.

Which would you rather do: cut Social Security benefits and raise the Medicare retirement age, or shorten the war in Afghanistan by two years?

Say what you want about President Obama; the decisions to withdraw uniformed troops from Iraq in compliance with the SOFA agreement and to delay the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline show that he moves in response to pressure from public opinion. Why should we let more American boys and girls die for no reason, if we can stop it? Urge your Senators to support the Merkley amendment.

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.