Brett McCrae is a national security consultant at Third Way.
Earlier in January when President Karzai visited Washington and President Obama, all the focus was on these two leaders. However, these discussions leave out an important player in any foreign policy debate—Congress. As the United States looks toward the coming transition, Congress has a crucial role to play in ensuring that America's best interests are met over the next 10 years in Afghanistan.
First, our Constitution grants Congress the power of the purse. Congress is charged with the duty of funding our government—and this includes our military. While every American wants the best military money can buy, it's no secret that our current debt levels could cause problems—even our top brass at the Pentagon agree. As the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen said in late 2011, the biggest threat to U.S. national security is this massive debt. Along these lines, waging war isn't cheap; the Department of Defense spends between $850,000 and $1.4 million per year to equip and keep a soldier in Afghanistan, and a Center for Strategic and International Studies report estimates that we've already spent over $600 billion in the war. While agreement between the two parties is rare, both Republicans and Democrats conclude that we have to address our debt. As Congress debates the 2014 defense budget, they will have to allocate funding to provide our troops in Afghanistan with the best equipment and support they need, while also balancing concerns for our economy.
Second, Congress has the power to conduct oversight of the executive branch and ensure that our actions are consistent with our goals. The reason we entered Afghanistan in the first place was to destroy al Qaeda, and take the fight to those who attacked us on 9/11. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force defined our mission: to bring justice against those who committed the 9/11 attacks and those nations that made it possible for them to do so. Now that bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda is on the run, that mission has changed. Congress should use this power of oversight in order to gather more details about what the American role in Afghanistan will be for the next decade, and make sure the mission is in our best interests and aligned with our core values. Other issues where Congress could weigh in include negotiating an endgame with the Taliban, continuing the American drone and special operations campaign, and investigating whether American projections for the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are indeed realistic.
Lastly, Congress's purpose is to represent and reflect the will of the American people. Now that we have dealt with the original al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan, Americans have no desire to act like an imperial power—and nor should we. The message from the public is clear: There is no appetite for a permanent American presence in Afghanistan. Domestic support is waning and 60 percent of Americans agree that we should bring our troops home as soon as possible. Critics might say that public opinion shouldn't determine policy, but even the Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual states that transition of responsibilities to host nation institutions is crucial to victory, and the sooner this transition occurs, the better. Congress should oversee this transition, and use its judgment to ensure that our hard-fought gains are solidified even while our combat footprint shrinks.
The Afghan government in Kabul faces enormous political, economic, and security challenges. The United States certainly shouldn't leave Afghanistan to the jackals, but Congress can't solve these problems for them, and at some point they will have to stand on their own two feet. We need our elected officials on Capitol Hill to make sure that our decade of effort in Afghanistan has made this country safer. The coming months will be critical to lock in our gains, and Congress needs to make sure to use its power to put America's priorities and interests first in Afghanistan—and not let the debate devolve into partisan bickering and political score-settling.