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‘At a crossroads’: Senior Policy Analyst Tyler Koteskey on the path forward for troops in Afghanistan

American Humvees driving Down Dunes

By Concerned Veterans for America

The United States has taken major steps over the last four years to reduce troop levels in the Middle East and Africa. These troop withdrawals have started the U.S. on a path to keeping our service members out of unnecessarily dangerous situations and finally ending America’s endless wars.

CVA Senior Policy Analyst Tyler Koteskey says the U.S. is now at a crossroads.

As the Biden administration decides how it will handle the war in Afghanistan and other military engagements, we’re continuing to call for full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and a better approach to foreign policy.

Koteskey talked about the proposals and solutions in our 2021 policy agenda, the drawdown plan in Afghanistan, and what the path forward looks like for ending our forever wars.

Q: A main theme of this year’s agenda is ending America’s endless wars. Why is that so important?

A: After almost 20 years of continuous war, it can be all too easy for Americans to forget about our far-flung military engagements in Afghanistan and elsewhere. CVA wants to bring attention to why these deployments aren’t necessary to keep us safe and to highlight their heavy costs—not just for our troops and their families and loved ones—but for all Americans.

Q: Is the U.S. on a better path to ending endless wars than in years past?

A: It’s still early in the Biden Presidency, and any new administration brings unique reasons for optimism and concern on foreign policy.

We’ve already seen the Biden administration announce a halt to U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen and offer its support for repealing outdated Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs). Both are wise policy, but increasingly, are fortunately also good politics. That’s reason for optimism.

But there are other reasons for continued vigilance. In Afghanistan, America’s May withdrawal deadline that we negotiated last year is rapidly approaching. As of today, the Biden administration hasn’t decided if it will choose to honor that deadline or not, despite clear strategic reasons for leaving. Sticking around no longer serves vital U.S. interests. So the U.S. and the administration is at a crossroads, and President Biden will need to decide if he will take the opportunity to end America’s longest war or not.

We’ve also seen a concerning war powers development. Despite supporting AUMF repeal, the Biden administration still recently launched an airstrike in Syria, where Congress has authorized no operations, making a dubiously expansive claim to its Article II authority. Notably, the administration did not offer even the claim that it was responding to an imminent threat or repelling an ongoing attack. These sorts of strikes set precedents that need to be challenged.

Q: What next steps should the Biden administration and Congress take to end the war in Afghanistan?

A: The Biden administration was handed a clear, negotiated framework for leaving Afghanistan that it should stick to. The Doha agreement gives America the opportunity to safely withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by May 2021. This agreement includes a ceasefire with the Taliban, which is the reason why the United States has so far been able to avoid combat casualties since it was signed in February 2020. If the Biden administration breaches that agreement, our troops will be back in the crosshairs despite having no clear mission or vital interests to protect.

For its part, Congress should reject any attempts to assign new withdrawal conditions which U.S. military force will never be able to bring about in Afghanistan. If the Biden Administration rejects a May exit and insists on an indefinite U.S. military presence instead, Congress should consider threatening to use its power to restrict future funding for the Afghanistan war unless a withdrawal plan is put in place.

Q: On the topic of Congress’s role, what do we mean when we propose rebalancing constitutional war powers?

A:  Article I of the Constitution assigns Congress the duty to authorize military engagement. Unfortunately, this critical oversight duty has been neglected in recent years, leaving war-making almost entirely in the hands of the executive branch, which our Founders never intended. But, there are short and long-term steps Congress can take to reassert its proper role.

More immediately, Congress should repeal the 1991, 2001, and 2002 AUMFs as they no longer serve their intended purposes. Rather, all three AUMFs have been used to justify operations and engagements beyond their original, narrowly intended goals in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Instead of avoiding responsibility by leaving blank check permission slips in place, Congress needs to have a robust, public debate and recorded votes about what military engagements are necessary to authorize and which aren’t.

Longer term, as the administration looks to negotiate a new authorization for current U.S. deployments, Congress needs to remember past mistakes in setting guidelines for future AUMFs. Ultimately, that means reforming the War Powers Act of 1973 to require stricter guidelines on new authorizations, such as narrow, targeted parameters for engagement, regular reporting and oversight, and automatic sunset dates. What Congress needs to avoid is passing an updated, open-ended authorization that will simply hand over war-making authority to the president in perpetuity.

Q: While we’ve been engaged in overseas wars for two decades, military leaders have said there is a national security threat brewing right here at home – the national debt. What do debt and security have to do with each other?

A: In 2010, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, called the national debt “the most significant threat to our national security.”

He was right. A strong economy makes America a better place to live, but it’s also the source of our military strength. Excessive debt saps this strength over the long-term by crowding out private investment that could otherwise grow the economy. That’s particularly concerning with a strategic competitor like China on track to eclipse the U.S. economy this decade.

Eventually, rising interest payments on the debt will also force us to make hard choices about our spending. The budget conversation needs to be had across government, but as an organization focused on veterans, we recognize that defense spending is a necessary part of it. If the United States wants to be able to protect our vital interests long-term, it needs to start putting DOD spending on a sustainable footing now, when there’s opportunity to do so safely and gradually. Waiting for a future when changes are abrupt and involuntary is far riskier.

Q: How do we address spending at the DOD?

A: We’ve got several options. Winding down military engagements that distract from vital national interests and aren’t necessary to keep us safe, like deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen can make the biggest, most immediate positive impacts.

Longer-term, we can also reexamine many deployments in Europe that made sense during the Cold War but are increasingly unnecessary to support wealthy and capable allies.

Finally, there are opportunities closer to home. Congress should stop buying extra equipment in our annual defense budgets that the Pentagon never asked for. It should continue good governance practices like the DOD audit, and it should be courageous enough to look at our bases. Maintaining 20 percent excess base capacity, for example, doesn’t make us safer, but it does take resources away from equipment upgrades or other uses that might.

To learn more about our foreign policy proposals and other CVA policy priorities, read our full policy agenda