In Afghanistan, U.S. Senators Mull Troop Boost, Aerial Bombing … and Peace
But no one was optimistic for a quick end to the conflict
“Not one of us would say that we are on a course to success in Afghanistan,” U.S. senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, told a room full of journalists, U.S. soldiers and diplomatic staff in Kabul on July 4, 2017.
McCain was accompanied by Senators Lindsey Graham, Sheldon Whitehouse, Elizabeth Warren and David Perdue. Together they visited Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates to assess America’s longest-ever war.
Their conclusions were not optimistic.
With the Taliban, Islamic State, the Haqqani network and other insurgents fast gaining ground, the delegation was unanimous on the need to bolster American forces. Pres. Donald Trump appears likely boost the 8,600-strong U.S. contingent in Afghanistan by as many as 5,000 additional troops in coming months.
“The one thing I will tell [Trump] about this visit is that you need to pull all of our troops out — because 8,600 will not get the job done — or add to their numbers,” Graham said, adding that he would also suggest a significant increase in U.S. air power in Afghanistan.
The senatorial delegation did not, however, agree on the long-term U.S. approach to the Afghanistan war. “It will probably be a low burning, simmering crisis for many years to come,” McCain said.
A Vietnam War veteran and ex-prisoner of war, a visibly frustrated McCain came out strongly against former president Barack Obama for even suggesting a deadline for pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
“I think one of the greatest failures has been when the president of Unites States announced a surge and put a date out for a withdrawal,” McCain said. “If I were the leader of the Taliban I’d say, just hang on. That was one of the least sane actions that I have ever observed. General Eisenhower did not announce the date that Berlin would fall.”
Warren, a strong critic of Trump and his administration, insisted that Americans’ patience for the war would depend on U.S. strategy in the region. “We need a strategy in the U.S. that defines our role in Afghanistan, defines our objective and explains how we are going to get from here to there,” Warren said.
Despite their varied stance on U.S. policy in the region, all the senator agreed that the absence of a diplomatic surge — to accompany a boost in troops — has been “unnerving.”
The delegation. Photos via John McCain
The Trump administration has failed to fill the diplomatic vacuum it created when it shut down the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in early 2017. Likewise, Trump has failed to appoint new U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“You’re not going to win this war just by more bombing,” Graham said. “You’re going to win this war by a whole-government approach.” Graham said he would urge Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to visit Afghanistan “quickly.”
The bipartisan delegation entertained no illusions with regard to Trump’s erratic diplomacy. “Can any of us here guarantee what the president’s going to do?” McCain asked. “No. But I can tell you that he has got the best minds to tell him what he should do.”
The U.S. Defense Department has been “playing a role in pushing back at the hollowing role of the State Department since the early months of the administration,” Whitehouse observed. “I hope that a strong bipartisan message from this delegation will get across that positions need to be filled with experienced, capable people who need to be empowered to make decisions to drive to success.”
The delegates also expressed their disapproval of Pakistan’s own lack of initiative in Afghanistan. McCain shared that in a very “candid” conversation with leaders in Pakistan, they made it clear that “the Haqqani having a safe zone in their country was not acceptable.”
“We made it very clear that we expect them to help us in cooperating in our struggle, particularly against Haqqani as well as other terrorist organizations.”
Graham emphasized the need for a new U.S. approach to Pakistan. “I think the president understands that we cannot win the war through kinetic activity towards Pakistan,” Graham said. “If they don’t change their behavior, then maybe we should change our behavior towards them as a nation.”
The senators described what winning should look like in Afghanistan. McCain described it as a scenario where government could secure most parts of Afghanistan and call a permanent ceasefire with the Taliban.
Whitehouse, by contrast, pushed a more romantic definition of victory–turning Afghanistan into a tourist destination. “Winning to me would mean that children and grandchildren of the Americans who died here in Afghanistan have the chance to come and visit Afghanistan as tourists, just the way they could in Normandy.”