In-Depth: Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) introduced this bill to ensure that certain conditions are met before U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan are allowed to fall below 10,000:
“Every American longs for the day when U.S. troops will return home from Afghanistan after a nearly two decade struggle against those responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, we cannot afford to be overly eager to strike any deal, especially a bad one, that looks to satisfy short term political pressures at the risk of long-term national security threats. The failed blunders of history, especially President Obama’s disastrous Iraq withdrawal, have demonstrated the grave risks posed by power vacuums in unstable regions of the world that were caused by a premature retreat. As the Administration negotiates with our adversaries to set the terms for a drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Ensuring a Secure Afghanistan Act would set the conditions by which a safe and responsible agreement should be reached. Should America not get this right the first time, ISIS-K and al Qaeda patiently wait to fill the void.”
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), an original cosponsor of this bill, adds that there’s an immediate danger of terrorism spreading from Afghanistan if the withdrawal of U.S. troops is improperly handled or premature:
“The American homeland is endangered when Afghanistan is used as a safe haven for terrorism. We saw the consequences of prematurely withdrawing troops from Iraq under President Obama and we cannot make that mistake in Afghanistan. We don’t win wars by leaving… The Islamic State is conducting active operations in Afghanistan and is estimated to have thousands of militants there. Meanwhile, al Qaeda has maintained its strong relationship with the Taliban. Afghan forces continue to sustain great casualties in their struggle against the Taliban, even with U.S. assistance. Considering the conditions on the ground, U.S. troops must continue the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan in support of their ultimate mission: keeping America safe.”
In an op-ed in the Casper Star Tribune, Wyoming State Sen. Brian Boner (R) expresses his support for this bill and argues that the Middle East’s recent history — and particularly the consequences of 2011’s premature retreat from Iraq — indicates that “premature withdrawal” from places such as Afghanistan and Syria may have disastrous long-term consequences:
“All we need to do is look at the recent history of the region to understand premature withdrawal will have disastrous consequences. Before President Obama ordered the retreat of the US military from Iraq in 2011, the situation was stable. By withdrawing based on arbitrary political timelines instead of conditions on the ground, the previous administration gave ISIS a foothold. By 2015 these terrorists were able to orchestrate attacks such as the one in Paris which killed 130 civilians. The ‘successes’ of this terrorist organization even inspired home grown terrorists to carry out attacks in San Bernardino, CA and Orlando, FL, killing dozens of Americans. While there are no absolute guarantees of security against such an enemy, the fact that these sorts of attacks subsided as ISIS started losing ground in Iraq and Syria is no coincidence. Additionally, such a lack of political resolve only emboldens other adversaries with far more serious capabilities to threaten our security. The power vacuum in Syria has allowed for increased Russian interference in the region. While the rise of ISIS was not the only factor which led to this development, it does beg the question of who fills the power vacuums created by an arbitrary withdrawal of US forces. In almost every instance, it isn’t a country or organization that shares our values or security objectives… Moving forward, we must not repeat the mistakes of the previous administration… The Ensuring a Secure Afghanistan Act would prevent a premature withdrawal of our forces before certain criteria are met, such as the Taliban recognizing the legitimacy of the Afghan government and breaking ties with terrorist organizations. Such a policy ensures we leave Afghanistan in a responsible manner which will not force us to return later. I share the hope that one day we can bring all our military home. But making decisions based on politics instead of reality will only serve to extend the Global War on Terror.”
President Trump has long criticized the war in Afghanistan, expressing desire to completely withdraw U.S. troops in the past. He announced his intention to pull U.S. troops from both Afghanistan and Syria in December 2018. On December 19, 2018, Trump directed then-Defense Secretary James Mattis to reduce U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan by half while also completely withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria. In his State of the Union address at the beginning of 2019, Trump touted “constructive talks” between the U.S. and Taliban. He said, “we do not know whether we will achieve an agreement -- but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace."
However, many senators in both parties believe the U.S. faces continuing threats from terrorist groups operating in Syria and Afghanistan, and that that a “precipitous withdrawal” of U.S. forces from either country could put hard-won gains and U.S. national security interests at risk. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) expressed these sentiments in January 2019, saying that there’s a “need for diplomatic engagement and political solutions to the underlying conflcits in Syria and Afghanistan.”
Writing in The National Interest, Washington, D.C.-based foreign policy writer Jerrod A. Laber argues it’s time to “acknowledge the limits of U.S. power” and withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, irregardless of the conditions of the withdrawal:
“For advocates of foreign policy restraint, every new American death represents the moral imperative for U.S. withdrawal from the region. To the Trump administration’s credit, U.S. envoys have been in discussions with the Taliban for months, seeking a possible end to the now almost eighteen-year-old war. But these efforts have been met largely with derision inside the D.C. Beltway. Representatives Jim Banks and Liz Cheney went so far as to introduce the ‘Ensuring a Secure Afghanistan Act’... to prevent a possible drawdown in Afghanistan if they are not satisfied with the details of any U.S.-Taliban deal. It is true that without U.S. support, Afghanistan would crumble, and, most likely, crumble fast. But as the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) shows clearly, Washington’s nation-building project has failed. Nearly two decades of American investment has produced no enduring progress and in some cases—such as corruption—actually made things worse. More money, time, and precious life will not produce a secure and stable Afghanistan. The best path for the United States is to leave, ending the facade of state-building, and focusing solely on counterterrorism… Nearly eighteen years of reconstruction and state-building efforts have failed. The logic of exit rests not on trust in the Taliban but on the threat of punishment. Even the most fervent advocates of restraint acknowledge that counterterrorism activities in the face of an imminent threat are justified. But that doesn’t mean America has to continue risking the lives of thousands of U.S. troops in the hopes of finding the magic formula for rebuilding Afghanistan.”
Writing for the RAND Corporation in January 2019, James Dobbins, Jason H. Campbell, Sean Mann, and Laurel E. Miller argued that while “winning may not be an available option” in Afghanistan, “losing certainly is.” They contended:
“A precipitous departure, no matter how rationalized, will mean choosing to lose. The result would be a blow to American credibility, the weakening of deterrence and the value of U.S. reassurance elsewhere, an increased terrorist threat emanating from the Afghan region, and the distinct possibility of a necessary return there under worse conditions.”
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February 2019, German Chancellor Angela Merkel questioned the wisdom of a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan. She also cautioned that the NATO mission in Afghanistan is dependent on U.S. participation.
This bill has four Republican cosponsors.
Of Note: Since U.S. military forces first arrived in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has lost about 2,300 troops in the conflict. It’s also appropriated about $126 billion for relief and reconstruction, including $78 billion for security.
Since 2018. U.S. officials have held “several rounds” of talks with the Taliban in Qatar, in what’s widely perceived to be the most serious bid for peace yet in the U.S. 17-year engagement in Afghanistan. Currently, the Taliban considers Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government a puppet regime controlled by the U.S. Accordingly, it refuses to deal directly with Ghani’s government and its representatives in peace talks.
In December 2018, U.S. defense officials confirmed that the U.S. was considering withdrawing as many as 7,000 of the approximately 14,000 U.S. forces deployed in Afghanistan. However, as of February 2019, those plans are reported to be “in a holding pattern” based on what Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad comes back with.
In early February 2019, the Taliban claimed that the Trump administration had agreed to pull half of the American forces in Afghanistan out of the country by May 1. However, the U.S. government denied that such a timeline had been agreed to, and Pentagon officials said they had no orders to withdraw troops.
In mid-February 2019, U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, said that Army General Scott Miller, who took over the Afghanistan war effort in September 2018, has been looking to reduce U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in an effort to be “as efficient and as effective as [the U.S.] can be on the ground.” Votel indicated that Miller’s efficiency drive would likely lead to removal of over 1,000 troops from Afghanistan.
In early January 2019, The Intercept noted that the Afghan government has been “fighting an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency that controls more territory than ever before” with depleted security forces which suffered “a record number of casualties during [2018’s] fighting season,” with few new recruits to replace its 2018 casualties. In interviews with Afghans across the country, the Intercept found “a range of responses, from trepidation to cautious optimism” in response to reports of the U.S. plan to draw down its troop levels in the country.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / guvendemir)