Senator Merkley’s Harm Reduction Plan for Afghanistan Would Save Lives and Billions

If Sen. Jeff Merkley's (D-Oregon) “expedite the drawdown from Afghanistan” amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act makes a strong showing, it could tip the Obama administration toward a faster drawdown.

That would likely save hundreds of American and Afghan lives – not to mention all the people who wouldn't be physically and psychologically maimed – and could easily save the United States 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. 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.

Merkley's amendment (#1174) says:

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 U.S. 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-Kentucky)
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah)
Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico)
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York)
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois)
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)

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-Montana)
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado)
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico)
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California)
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington)
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland)
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota)
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota)
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-Lousiana)
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey)
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont)
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey)
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont)
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-New York)
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island)
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon)

Beyond these 27, there are other senators who have questioned the wisdom of keeping so many troops in Afghanistan.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in May that, “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 100,000 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 1,000 American lives. At more than $100 billion a year, shortening the war by two years could easily save $200 billion (and that's just current expenditures; it doesn't count the future cost of veterans' health care, for example.) Two hundred billion dollars is one-sixth of the supercommittee's debt reduction target, 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?

An online request for senators to co-sponsor the Merkley amendment can be found here.