On the eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, we speak to Democratic Congressmember Barbara Lee, the only lawmaker in either chamber of Congress to vote against the 2001 resolution authorizing the initial use of force. Lee recently introduced legislation to prohibit funding to send more troops to Afghanistan. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Today marks the eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. On October 7th, 2001, US submarines launched cruise missiles from the Arabian Sea and B-52 and B-2 stealth bombers began air strikes. The war was on. It came less than a month after 9/11. The Pentagon called it Operation Enduring Freedom.
Since then, nearly 900 US troops have been killed, 230 of them in this year alone, putting 2009 on track to be the deadliest year for US forces. There is no reliable count on the number of Afghan civilians killed, but some estimates put the figures in the tens of thousands.
Today, the war enters its ninth year with no clear end in sight. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama told congressional leaders he has ruled out a US troop withdrawal and will not consider cutting troop levels. The President was meeting with thirty key Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the White House as part of an extensive review of the war.
Obama escalated the war upon entering office earlier this year, sending an additional 21,000 troops, which brings the US total to 68,000. He is expected to decide soon on whether to send tens of thousands more, as requested by US commander General Stanley McChrystal.
But some on Capitol Hill are trying to prevent another surge. Democratic Congress member Barbara Lee has introduced legislation to prohibit funding to send more troops to Afghanistan. The bill has twenty-one co-sponsors. In 2001, Congress member Lee was the only lawmaker in either chamber of Congress to vote against the 2001 resolution authorizing the use of force in Afghanistan.
Congress member Lee will join us live from Capitol Hill in a moment, but first we want to turn back to her impassioned speech opposing the war. This is what she said on the floor of the House on September 14th, 2001, three days after the 9/11 attacks.
REP. BARBARA LEE: Mr. Speaker, members, I rise today really with a very heavy heart, one that is filled with sorrow for the families and the loved ones who were killed and injured this week. Only the most foolish and the most callous would not understand the grief that has really gripped our people and millions across the world. This unspeakable act on the United States has really forced me, however, to rely on my moral compass, my conscience and my God for direction.
September 11th changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. This is a very complex and complicated matter.
Now this resolution will pass, although we all know that the President can wage a war even without it. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, let’s step back for a moment. Let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.
Now I have agonized over this vote. But I came to grips with it today, and I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful, yet very beautiful, memorial service. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”
Thank you, and I yield the balance of my time.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Congress member Barbara Lee, speaking on the House floor on September 14th, 2001. Congress member Lee joins us now from Capitol Hill.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
REP. BARBARA LEE: Glad to be with you this morning.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Your thoughts, all these years later, of that speech and what you urged your fellow members of Congress?
REP. BARBARA LEE: Eight years later, I feel the same way, of course, still very sad about the loss of life, still praying for the families of those who lost their loved ones. It was a very difficult time, and it still is a very difficult time for our country.
During that time, you know, we had to, I understand, figure out a strategy to respond. However, as I said on the floor, military action is not going to combat or be the appropriate counterterrorism strategy, because it’s very complicated. Secondly — and we need a more comprehensive approach to dealing with global terrorism.
Secondly, as I think about eight years ago, it’s hard to believe that we gave the authority to the President to use force in perpetuity. Only Congress can declare war. And in fact, this blank check that was given to then President Bush, now any future president, was really, I believe, unconstitutional. Congress should never cede our authority in our declaration of war making ability, and that is just based on what the Constitution requires. And we did not do that. And so, it was a blank check. It allowed for the military operation, the war in Afghanistan. It served as the basis for the war against Iraq. It could be used over and over again, unless we put an end to this.
You can’t have endless war forever. And so, we have to figure out new ways to combat terrorism. And in fact, I am proud and pleased that the President is really trying to think this through and trying to come up with a way to approach the world, really, in terms of our global peace and security strategies that are a new direction from the past.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, eight years ago, you were the lone member of Congress opposing this war. Now you’ve got about two dozen co-sponsors on your bill that would prohibit a further surge in Afghanistan. Could you talk about your legislation and its prospects?
REP. BARBARA LEE: Sure. And the American people really, I believe, do not want to see an increase in troop level in Afghanistan. I serve as a member of the Appropriations Committee. And, of course, any bill like this is a very difficult one to pass. All it says is that no funds will be appropriated for an increase in troop levels in Afghanistan. We do have twenty-one co-sponsors, but we’re building support for that.
Several months ago, we also tried to pass Congressman McGovern’s resolution, which I co-sponsored, requiring an exit strategy to be put in place by December, to just present a plan with regard to redeployment or exiting out of Afghanistan. Of course, that did not pass either. I believe we were able to garner 138 votes.
But let me just say how important it is to offer a broader point of view in this debate, a different point of view. Up until now, we have had very little debate on Afghanistan and an appropriate US role there and what we should do. Now we are close to perhaps sending additional troops, but we don’t hear a different alternative that could present a clearer path to regional stability. And, of course, the mission is ensuring US national interest and national security interests. And so, what my resolution does, at least it has now created a space here in the House for a real debate on should we increase troop levels. If not, what should we do? What should our strategy be? And what is the mission in Afghanistan? And again, I think the President is absolutely right in taking his time to try to sort this through, and we have to provide him with all of the points of views that he will have to listen to and deal with when in fact he decides — he makes his decision.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But the President obviously has already increased the troop levels by 20,000 earlier in the year, and he held a meeting at the White House yesterday with congressional leaders. Your sense of whether he will get the uniform support that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid initially suggested might be coming his way, no matter what his decision is?
REP. BARBARA LEE: I don’t have a sense of that. I do have a sense of the President and his deliberative process that he is undertaking, which I think is absolutely correct. And he’s listening to a variety of points of views.
And as a member of Congress, not as a member of the executive branch, but as a member of Congress, whose constitutional responsibility is to protect our troops, to make sure that if there are going to be military operations that there is a declaration of war, I cannot support an increase in troop level, because there — first of all, there’s no declaration of war. We have given the authority, I think unconstitutionally, to the administration to wage war, endless war, until in fact the administration decides that it’s no longer needed.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Would you take the step of trying to block appropriations for the war effort if the escalation in troop levels goes through?
REP. BARBARA LEE: I have not supported any increase in appropriations for either the war in Iraq, the occupation of Iraq, nor the war and occupation of Afghanistan. My resolution would deny funding for any increase in troop levels. Now, let me just say, it’s a very hard position to take, and that is a very hard policy to move through the House of Representatives, but I cannot support an increase in funding for this.
You know, we need to look at Pakistan. Pakistan, unfortunately, has nuclear arsenals that we have to focus on. That’s where al-Qaeda is. When you look at Afghanistan, the poppy seeds have — the poppy fields, you know, are grown now. We’re witnessing another influx in heroin in the United States. We have to look at a more comprehensive strategy, as it relates to Afghanistan, that requires more public diplomacy. Also it requires more economic strategies to make sure that the farmers have alternative crops. And in fact, we have to really look at how we address issues with regard to women. We have to look at ensuring that our tax dollars aren’t being ripped off by corruption.
And so, there are many, many issues with regard to Afghanistan, in terms of the Taliban and in terms of contrasting that with what we need to do in Pakistan, that we really need to focus on objectively and make some hard decisions there.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, General Stanley McChrystal is believed to be seeking 40,000 more troops to be deployed to Afghanistan. He said the situation there is deteriorating. I want to play some of his comments and get your response.
GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: The situation is serious, and I choose that word very, very carefully. I also say that neither success or failure for our endeavor there in support of the Afghan people and the government can be taken for granted. My assessment, my best military judgment, as I term it, is that the situation is in some ways deteriorating. We need to reverse the current trends, and time does matter. Waiting does not prolong a favorable outcome.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Congress member Lee, your response to General McChrystal and also to the critics who say that the politicians in Washington shouldn’t be second-guessing the assessments of the military commanders?
REP. BARBARA LEE: Let me say, the situation is deteriorating in Afghanistan. We’ve been there eight years, and it has not worked. And it’s deteriorating, so he’s absolutely correct.
The more military-first strategies that are employed with regard to Afghanistan, the worse it’s going to be. The counter, you know, impact is what’s happening now. More troops become occupiers, as perceived by the Afghani people. The hostility, the violence continues to increase. And in fact, I’m not willing to warrant our young men and women placed in harm’s way. It has not worked over the last eight years. We’re digging ourselves deeper in a hole. There is no military solution in Afghanistan.
I believe if you look at history, you’ll see that the British tried, the Soviets tried. This has a historical context, which we have to understand and remember.
And so, if it hasn’t worked in eight years, with more troops and more troops, more militarization, more occupation of that country, I think we need to look at new strategies and a more comprehensive approach to address the security issues in Afghanistan, as well as the economic stability of that country.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And finally, I’d like to ask you whether you think the allegations of massive fraud in the Afghan — the recent Afghan elections have had any impact on how your colleagues in Congress regard their willingness to support the continued US presence in the country.
REP. BARBARA LEE: Well, we shall see. You know, it’s really very interesting when I listen to many of my colleagues around the healthcare debate and the debate around the deficit and not wanting to fund universal healthcare with a robust public option. You don’t hear that same kind of contrast and policy debate with regard to military spending. So I think we need to really be honest about what is taking place there. We need to be honest about our hard-earned tax dollars and where we’re sending these tax dollars. And certainly, there has been corruption in Afghanistan. There’s been corruption in Iraq. We’ve spent 200-and-some billion dollars in Afghanistan, over a trillion dollars in Iraq. We’re trying to pass healthcare for Americans, for every man, woman and child here. And so, hopefully my colleagues will begin to be objective about our spending.
And, of course, I support and believe that our national security is a first priority for all of us, and we have to ensure that. But I believe that there are better ways to ensure our national interest in our national security interest.
And finally, let me just say, with regard to the critics who talk about elected officials caving in and not engaging in any debate, I think that is really very dangerous. Again, Congress has the constitutional responsibility to declare war. Many forget what the basic tenets of our democracy are, and that is dissent, debate and offering different points of views. And that is what we are doing. And so, for those who don’t believe that our democracy should survive even during national security debates and discussions, to me, don’t really understand what the true essence of American democracy is, nor do they understand the Constitution.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Representative Barbara Lee, I want to thank you for being with us. The only lawmaker in either chamber of Congress to vote against the 2001 resolution authorizing the use of force in Afghanistan, she’s also introduced legislation to prohibit funding for another surge of troops in that war.
We’re going to take a break, and when we come back, we’re going to look at the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, eight years after the war began.