WASHINGTON ― As U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to cut American boots on the ground in Afghanistan, he owes the American people a clearer explanation for U.S. military’s activities there, the House Armed Services Committee’s top Republican said Thursday.
Trump, like former President Barack Obama, has not provided a “high-level explanation” of the Afghanistan mission or its goals, which has helped erode public support, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said on a C-SPAN “Newsmakers” program set to air Friday night.
“If you don’t hear that month after month, year after year, that starts to affect the way the American people see the mission, so I think they are owed that,” the HASC ranking member said.
The comments came days after a blockbuster Washington Post report that the U.S. government across three White House administrations misled the public about failures in the Afghanistan war, often suggesting success where it didn’t exist. That report, which details internal frustrations with America’s ever-changing strategy, has fed calls to end the 18-year-old war.
On the same day, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a closed hearing on Afghanistan with Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller, the 17th commander to oversee the American and NATO mission in Afghanistan, and Randall Schriver, the Defense Department’s departing Asia policy lead.
House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., announced Tuesday he would hold a hearing in the coming weeks with the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko.
“This week’s reporting confirms many of my concerns about the lack of a coherent and achievable strategy to ending the war in Afghanistan, and the committee will continue to seek answers about what went wrong in Afghanistan and how to bring the war to an end,” Engel said.
Trump, in an unannounced Thanksgiving visit to American troops in Afghanistan, said he had restarted peace talks with the Taliban and that he wanted to halve the American military presence, which stands at about 13,000.
The Pentagon is considering several options to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan, including one that would shift to a narrower counterterrorism mission, the top U.S. military officer told Congress on Wednesday. Gen. Mark Milley, who serves as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not disclose potential troop totals, but he agreed that leaving a minimal U.S. footprint in Afghanistan to battle terrorists is a potential move.
“We have multiple options, that’s one of them,” he said.
The U.S. has about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan. About 5,000 of them are executing counterterrorism missions. The remainder are part of a broader NATO mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley speaks to members of the military during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit by President Donald Trump on Nov. 28, 2019, at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who testified alongside Milley, said commanders have reported that the U.S. can reduce its presence in Afghanistan while still performing the counterterrorism mission.
“I’m interested in reducing our force presence,” Esper said, so that some portion of the troops now based in Afghanistan can be reallocated to other parts of the world to bolster U.S. preparedness for potential conflict with China or Russia. Esper has said he is reviewing U.S. military missions worldwide to determine how many can be reallocated in that manner.
In the interview, Thornberry allowed that U.S. troop numbers could be reduced, depending on conditions in Afghanistan and so long as there was “reciprocity” from the Taliban. He expressed confidence in U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan and negotiators, but was skeptical about the talks: “I trust the Taliban as far as I can throw them.”
Still, Thornberry defended the idea of a retaining some American boots on the ground as a means to guard against future attacks on the U.S. homeland.
“While it’s not in the news a lot these days, I believe ― based on very good information ― that there is still a significant terrorist threat in Afghanistan that threatens our homeland,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
Another bloody year of fighting in Afghanistan is almost in the books as peace negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban seek an end to America’s longest war.
But Pentagon officials won’t provide any metrics to highlight whether Afghan forces made any battlefield progress in their fight against the Taliban and other militants across the country in 2019.
“I’m not going to get into specifics with respect to metrics,” Rear Adm. William D. Byrne Jr., vice director of Joint Staff, told reporters during a Pentagon press briefing Thursday.
Byrne told reporters that Army Gen. Austin Miller, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was “satisfied” with the current force posture to carry out counterterror and advising missions.
Jonathan Hoffman, the chief spokesman for the Pentagon, highlighted the September Afghan election that were carried out “relatively violence free” as evidence of success for Afghan security forces in 2019.
The results of September’s election have yet to be released.
Rosy metrics provided by the U.S. military regarding progress of the Afghan war have been questionable in the past.
The Washington Post recently reported comments made by U.S. military and diplomatic officials indicating that for years those in charge of America’s longest war were often pressured to produce meaningless statistics and metrics that showed progress.
The comments made by U.S. officials were obtained by the Washington Post through a government records request.
John Garofano, who advised Marines in Helmand in 2011, said during a 2015 government interview that a lot of effort was put into producing color-coded charts that showed the war was moving in the right direction, and no one questioned the credibility of the information or whether it was helpful, according to the Washington Post.
“They had a really expensive machine that would print the really large pieces of paper like in a print shop,” Garofano said in the 2015 interview, according the Washington Post. “There would be a caveat that these are not actually scientific figures, or this is not a scientific process behind this.”
The comments by U.S. officials were made as part of a project led by John Sopko known as “Lesson Learned” about the war in Afghanistan. Sopko is the lead inspector general for a government watchdog group known as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Asked by a reporter Thursday whether Americans could trust the metrics coming out of the U.S. military regarding the state of Afghanistan and the war effort, Hoffman said the current administration was being honest and transparent with the American people.
The Washington Post story, Hoffman said, was “looking at individuals giving retrospective years later on what they may have believed at the time.”
The Afghan war appears to still be in a stalemate as the control of terrain continues to jockey back and forth between the Taliban and Afghan government.
Much of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, with exception of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, is under control of the Taliban.
At the end of November, the Afghan government claimed they had cleared the volatile district of Marjah of Taliban militants. American A-10s and U.S. special operators supported Afghan forces in the nearly two-week clearance operation.
The U.S. recently resumed talks with the Taliban. Amidst the peace negotiations, Taliban fighters attempted to storm Bagram Air Base on Wednesday. U.S. forces called in airstrikes to halt the attack.
There are roughly 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.