You might assume Congress would be intensely focused on this, holding repeated oversight hearings to determine whether we’ve got the right strategy, are spending resources wisely and have a process that will result in success. You would be wrong.
Forgive me if I believe our Congress is simply not doing its job. I served on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in the 1970s and 80s, when congressional oversight was robust. It helped lead to better approaches and outcomes, notably with respect to the Middle East, Soviet Jewry, South Africa and Central America.
Challenging the strategies and expenditures caused administrations of both parties to rethink their assumptions and how best to advance America’s interests. Leaders I served with such as Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), Dante Fascell (D-Fla.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and many others were fully engaged in legislative oversight at a level that doesn’t exist today. After all these years, the war in Afghanistan cries out for this kind of scrutiny and reevaluation of strategies.
Why isn’t this happening? It would be tempting to suggest it’s because we have a White House and Congress controlled by the same party. But foreign policy oversight was also weak during both the Bush and Obama administrations, so other factors are in play.
One that doesn’t get adequate attention is the financial interests that defense contractors (the so-called “Beltway Bandits”) have in maintaining the status quo. Following the money sadly, often is the best way to understand why our modern Congress does what it does, or in this case doesn’t do.
The power of special interest money in our political system has exploded since my time on Capitol Hill, and it affects every issue from health care to guns, to tariffs. And yes, foreign policy is no exception. Candidate Donald Trump was right to argue that the Washington swamp needs to be drained, but the alligators are dining better than ever. If you doubt this, just look at recent tax and budget legislation. Virtually every special interest won everything it wanted, as we added trillions to the national debt to pay for these gimmicks and loopholes.
So what should congressional overseers look at in Afghanistan?
First of all, a complete review of America’s military strategy is long overdue. Why are we there? What are our objectives? Does what we’re doing have a reasonable chance of achieving those objectives? Are there other tactics and strategies that make more sense? Would there be a better way to spend some of that $45 billion, like improving failing infrastructure here at home?
The Watson Institute for International and Public Policy at Brown University estimates total U.S. spending related to Afghanistan since 2001to be nearly $1 trillion, assuming Congress approves the Trump administration’s request for fiscal 2018. (This, of course, is precisely the amount candidate Trump promised to spend to improve our infrastructure. As president, he determined we can’t afford that and has proposed $150 billion of federal spending on infrastructure over multiple years.)
In the past, Congress would routinely place conditions on foreign affairs spending. Afghanistan policy has been essentially left to the military (and, of course, the contractors). The complex issues of Taliban control of vast areas, governmental corruption, the continued presence of al-Qaeda, the negative roles of warlords and next door neighbor Pakistan, all demand intense oversight by the relevant congressional committees. Respected experts argue that a positive military outcome is impossible, and that a political settlement must be pursued. The people’s representatives need to examine this. The war has gone too long without them fulfilling their basic responsibilities.
By: MICHAEL D. BARNES (D-MD.), OPINION CONTRIBUTOR