Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday slammed President Donald Trump’s plan for a swift reduction of U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, warning that it would be a gift to America’s enemies and would undermine progress already made in the region.
“A rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm,” McConnell said bluntly.
The Kentucky Republican’s remarks came as POLITICO reported that the White House has instructed the Pentagon to begin planning for a significant drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. A defense official told POLITICO that under the proposal, just 2,500 American troops would remain in each country by Jan. 15, just five days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Currently, there are between 4,500 and 5,000 troops in Afghanistan and around 3,000 in Iraq.
McConnell’s comments represented a rare break from the president, especially as he remains supportive of Trump’s long-shot lawsuits alleging widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
But McConnell has consistently spoken out against Trump’s tendencies to withdraw American troops from the Middle East. Last year, for example, McConnell condemned the administration’s decision to remove U.S. forces from northern Syria and introduced a measure opposing such a withdrawal.
Speaking from the Senate floor, McConnell said an American retreat would “embolden” the Taliban — which is already failing to adhere to its obligations under a peace agreement negotiated earlier this year — and give al Qaeda “a big, big propaganda victory and a renewed safe haven for plotting attacks against America.”
McConnell also went after members of both parties who have called for reductions of U.S. troop presence in the region, arguing that a “premature American exit would likely be even worse” than former President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq at the end of 2011 — a decision experts said led in part to the rise of the ISIS caliphate.
Trump has courted advice from lawmakers and senior officials on both sides of the issue, though he has not adopted a consistent philosophy himself. Last week, he fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper at least in part for pushing back against Trump’s latest effort to reduce U.S. troop levels in the region.
Esper’s replacement, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, is viewed as being supportive of Trump’s push. Last week, Miller hired retired Army Col. Douglas McGregor, a critic of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, as a top adviser.
McConnell credited Trump with helping to create conditions on the ground that “will secure the enduring defeat of terrorists.” But, he said, those same militant groups “would like nothing more than for the most powerful force for good in world history to simply pick up our ball and go home.”
“A disorganized retreat would jeopardize the track record of major successes this administration has worked hard to compile,” he said.
On the House side, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that “a premature U.S. withdrawal would not only jeopardize the Afghan government’s ability to negotiate, but would endanger U.S. counterterrorism interests.”
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