Trump’s military cuts in Afghanistan highlight an array of divisions in a 19-year-old conflict

November 19, 2020

The longest war in U.S. history isn’t over, and there are still many disagreements about what to do.

President Trump has ordered a reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from about 5,000 to 2,500. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
As news emerged that the Trump administration will cut in half the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Marine Corps veteran Kyle Bibby eyed the plan and the outgoing commander in chief with suspicion.

“This seems like political theater to me,” said Bibby, now the national campaigns manager for the liberal veterans group Common Defense. “He’s doing his homework the morning it is due — let me put it that way.”

But Lawrence J. Korb, a Vietnam veteran and senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, cheered the decision. He questioned the wisdom of defense officials who, citing a spike in Taliban violence and other factors, have recommended keeping as many as 5,000 troops in Afghanistan.

“If you say you’re conditions-based, you could be there forever,” said Korb, a former Pentagon official. “I think the key thing is you have to recognize: You’ve got to leave. The question is, at what pace?”

The differing viewpoints highlight the vexing problem the 19-year-old American war remains, nearly four years after President Trump took office pledging to bring U.S. troops home from conflicts overseas.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers broadly agree that returning to the sprawling counterinsurgency campaigns waged in years past is no longer in the United States’ interest, but there are divisions even within the parties over what Trump — and the incoming Biden administration — should do next in the longest war in American history.

Among Republicans, some lawmakers who rarely criticize the president took umbrage with his decision to cut troop levels from about 5,000 to 2,500 in Afghanistan and from about 3,000 to 2,500 in Iraq.

“Terrorists will exploit vacuums — President Obama’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq opened the door for ISIS,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement, referring to the Islamic State. “I fear this weak retreat is not grounded in reality and will make the world a more dangerous place.”

But other Republicans voiced agreement with the president.

“In this plan, we stand with the Afghan people and against the increased violence of the Taliban against the elected government,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Among Democratic lawmakers who generally say the United States needs to leave Afghanistan, some took issue with the way Trump has handled the departure in the closing weeks of his presidency.

“There was no doubt the final days of this Administration would be tumultuous, but the haphazard nature of President Trump’s decision will harm our national security and jeopardize countless American, Afghan, and Iraqi lives,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a statement.

But other Democrats who have called for the end of U.S. wars said nothing or found common cause with the president’s instincts.

Rep. Adam Smith (D.-Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he had spoken with new acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller and believes that “reducing our forward deployed footprint in Afghanistan down to 2,500 troops is the right policy decision.”

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) addressed the issue on a bipartisan basis in a letter to the Pentagon. As veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the two lawmakers said they have “grave concern” about the cut and asked how it will be handled.

“Additionally, we continue to be concerned by the growing ISIS activity in Afghanistan and Iran’s influence in Iraq,” they wrote. “Intelligence shows that both issues are destabilizing factors in a critical region, and minimizing our military and diplomatic footprint allows malign forces to fill the vacuum we create.”

Tom Porter, the executive vice president of government affairs for the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said his group has not yet polled its members about the president’s latest decision. But in its 2020 survey of members, 28 percent said they think the U.S. war in Afghanistan was worth it, and 34 percent said it was somewhat worth it. Others were either neutral or held dimmer views about the conflict.

Porter, who served one tour as a Navy officer in Afghanistan, said he is concerned that Trump’s decision may create a scenario in which President-elect Joe Biden may have to make a politically difficult decision about whether to add troops in Afghanistan later. He cited the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 and the bloodshed that took place in 2014 as the Islamic State swept across parts of the country.

“I would hate for that same kind of thing to happen again,” Porter said. “I know there is going to have to be date that we have to leave there. We just want to make sure it’s under the right circumstances.”

In an appearance Wednesday, the new acting Pentagon chief highlighted the valor among service members and loss of life in the war while praising Trump for bringing U.S. military involvement close to a close.

“In light of the countless sacrifices made by hundreds of thousands of American service members, and our enormous progress over nearly two decades, we are now bringing these conflicts to their successful and responsible conclusion under the bold leadership of President Trump,” Miller said at the Army Special Operations Forces Memorial Plaza at Fort Bragg, N.C., dedicated to elite soldiers killed in action.

Miller did not acknowledge that his predecessor, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, recommended against the continued withdrawal after consulting with senior military officers, citing deteriorating conditions on the ground, or the concerns raised by lawmakers and generals.

In Washington, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, a former top commander in Afghanistan and past critic of Trump, described the cuts as politically motivated and said there was no tactical, operational or strategic benefit to them.

“We question whether this was to fulfill a campaign promise or to foreclose options for the Biden administration,” Allen said, speaking at an event organized by the Soufan Center, a nonprofit focused on security issues. “There’s no merit to this. None.”

The disagreements highlight a growing belief among some Republicans and Democrats alike that the surge of tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan during the Obama administration did not work long-term and had tragic results, said Benjamin Friedman, a Washington policy analyst who opposes U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Trump’s military cuts in Afghanistan highlight an array of divisions in a 19-year-old conflict