When the House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved an amendment directing the president to remove all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, it was far more important in reflecting the nation’s current mood toward the Afghanistan war — and war generally — than in having any practical effect on administration policy.
Indeed, scholars, senior congressional aides and lawmakers acknowledged the amendment merely restates Obama administration policy, lacks any enforcement provisions and in no way calls into question the balance of war powers between the executive and legislative branches under the Constitution.
“This amendment requires the president to stick to his timetable, accelerate it if he can,” said Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who sponsored the amendment along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. “And depending on your point of view, this amendment puts the wind at the president’s back, or holds his feet to the fire, to fulfill the promises he made to our brave troops, their families, and the American people.”
The amendment, approved 305-121 as part of the House-passed fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill (HR 1960), nonetheless serves as an important political message to the Senate and the Obama administration about the nation’s war fatigue, particularly as the president contemplates deeper involvement in the bloody Syrian civil war. On Thursday, the White House announced it was stepping up support to opposition forces in Syria after confirming the use of chemical weapons by government forces.
The Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday approved its version of the fiscal 2014 defense policy bill without specific language about the Afghan drawdown timetable. It is unclear when that bill might be placed on the Senate calendar.
On the House side, the relatively short three-page amendment states plainly that it is the policy of the United States that the president “shall” turn over combat operations to the Afghan military by the end of 2013 and remove all troops and security contractors from the country by the end of 2014.
It further directs the president to pursue reconciliation of the internal Afghan conflict.
Last, the amendment offers a sense of the Congress statement that appears to contradict the directives in it. It suggests that should the president determine it is necessary to maintain United States troops beyond the end of 2014, he should seek authorization from Congress no later than June 1, 2014.
Further, the amendment takes pains to assert that it in no way should be construed as a limitation on the president’s authority to “modify the military strategy, tactics and operations of United States Armed Forces.”
Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University, said that while the amendment was in no way radical, it also was not trivial.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.