President Trump’s push to quickly draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan is proving a tough sell on Capitol Hill as one of the country’s most experienced diplomats in the region told a House hearing Friday the U.S. was “waving the white flag” in the conflict even before the transfer of power to presumed President-elect Joseph R. Biden in January.
Ryan Crocker, who has served as ambassador to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq during his career, told the House Armed Services Committee that the Trump administration has placed the U.S. in a “very dangerous situation” with a major reduction in U.S. forces in Afghanistan — and smaller one in Iraq — by mid-January. Mr. Crocker predicted that the Taliban would only be emboldened by the move.
“The worst thing we can do is what we’re doing,” said Mr. Crocker. “Basically telling the Taliban, ‘You win, we lose. Let’s dress this up as best we can.’”
Mr. Trump’s long-expected move has divided lawmakers, with some liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans applauding the move, which many senior figures in both parties warn the Pentagon is making a mistake.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller confirmed this week the Pentagon will reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq by Jan. 15 — five days before Mr. Biden is expected to take the oath of office. America currently has 4,500 troops in Afghanistan and about 3,000 in Iraq, and both deployments date back to the early 2000s.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited over the weekend to offer moral support to negotiators for the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government, even as another missile attack blamed on the Islamic State rocked the center of Kabul, killing eight and wounding more than two dozen.
A deal between the Trump administration and the Taliban in February envisioned a complete pullout of U.S. troops by mid-2021, but only if the insurgents agreed to power-sharing talks with the Afghan government and worked to keep other terror groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State from establishing a base inside Afghanistan. The Pentagon has been openly skeptical of the deal, and Mr. Trump dismissed former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper earlier this month in large part over his opposition to an expedited U.S. withdrawal.
In Qatar, Mr. Pompeo met with the co-founder of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who signed the peace agreement with Washington in February ahead of the so-called intra-Afghan talks, The Associated Press reported.
While violence remains high in Afghanistan, U.S. officials say the Taliban have kept the pledge they made in February not to directly attack U.S. and allied forces.
At Friday’s hearing, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the panel’s ranking Republican, warned the Afghan government may not be up to the task of defending itself without U.S. and NATO military support.
“The goal all of us have is for the Afghans to be able to handle their security issues on their own so that no transnational threat emerges from that territory,” said Mr. Thornberry, “but I do not believe that they are there yet.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington Democrat, has voiced support for the troop reduction, but several regional analysts told Friday’s hearing that it will weaken America’s hand in securing the region from future attacks.
“We should maintain our current troop levels chiefly for its political value as bargaining leverage in the ongoing talks between the afghan government and the Taliban,” said Columbia University professor Stephen Biddle, a former member of the Defense Department’s Defense Policy Board.
Mr. Biddle, who also advised former U.S. Afghan commander Army Gen. Stanley M. McChrystal, suggested that the U.S. lost an edge in ongoing peace negotiations without demanding a concession from the Taliban in exchange.
The U.S. had about 12,000 troops in the country when the deal was signed in February and about 4,500 now. Mr. Miller said the number will be down to about 2,000 over the next two months.
Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Richard Durbin, both Illinois Democrats, said that removing American troops “may reduce our leverage and ability to secure the release of American hostages … and any negotiated settlement in Afghanistan must not overlook the need to first recover all American hostages.”
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