Lawmakers weigh new troops for America’s longest war

Lawmakers weigh new troops for America’s longest war
© Getty Images

Top Pentagon and Trump administration officials are recommending that thousands of additional U.S. troops be sent to Afghanistan, but such a move would raise the human and budgetary cost of America’s longest war, lawmakers and experts warn.

Proponents of an increase argue the additional troops would force the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government and help end a 15-year-long fight that has frustrated many. The plan is also reported to include new funding to help the Afghan government.

ADVERTISEMENT

The extra troops and foreign aid are not likely to come cheap, however, adding to the fight’s $23 billion annual price tag. The added human cost is also weighing heavily on lawmakers’ minds.

“We spent billions of dollars. We’ve lost thousands of American lives. We’ve been engaged in this war for over 15 years. And we are still struggling to determine how it can end favorably for the best interest of the United States and the Afghan people,” said Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinAmnesty International calls to halt Kavanaugh nomination Fox's Chris Wallace: All 10 Democratic Senate Judiciary members again declined interview invitations Durbin: ‘No reason’ for people to remember Kavanaugh at party accuser describes MORE (Ill.), the second-ranking member of Democratic leadership.

Speaking during an appearance on MSNBC, Durbin warned that potential U.S. troop increases in Afghanistan could lead to “a permanent occupation.” He urged fellow lawmakers to “ask some hard questions.”

“How long will this go on? How long will it be a battle and, when does it become a permanent occupation?” Durbin said. “That’s a question Congress needs to face.”

There are about 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan on a dual mission of training, advising and assisting Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban and conducting counterterrorism missions against groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told Congress in February he needs a few thousand additional troops and described the current fight as a stalemate.

The Defense Department could not say how much such a troop increase would cost because “there are numerous variables to factor in.” But former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJudge denies bid to move lawsuit over Trump national monument rollbacks to Utah Tomi Lahren to former first lady: 'Sit down, Michelle' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump questions Kavanaugh accuser's account | Accuser may testify Thursday | Midterm blame game begins MORE in November asked for an additional $2.5 billion in overseas contingency operations funds to maintain 8,400 troops in Afghanistan.

Besides a troop increase recommendation, details of the latest plan are still scarce. First reported by The Washington Post, the strategy is said to provide the Pentagon with broader authority over how many troops to deploy and would ask NATO nations to also send several thousand troops. The number of U.S. forces deployed would likely depend on the number of soldiers provided by allies.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that President Trump considers winning in Afghanistan to be eliminating the threat posed by the Taliban and ISIS.

“We need to fully eliminate any threat around the globe, frankly, not just in Afghanistan, that poses a threat to our people and our allies,” Spicer said at Tuesday’s press briefing.

Asked why 15,000 U.S. troops would eliminate the threat when 100,000 didn’t before, Spicer said, “That’s a very Washington question.”

“Just because you spend more, throw more people, doesn’t mean you’re doing it in the most effective way. I think one of the things that he has asked his national security team to do is to actually think the strategy, rethink the strategy,” he said.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) called for the Trump administration to outline a “clear strategy for success against ISIS and the Taliban.”

“The President must articulate to Congress and the public what he intends to achieve by sending more of our young men and women into danger, how he will ensure success in meeting those goals, and how he intends to pay for a military escalation,” Hoyer said in a statement.

Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said what he’s seen of the new plan leaves him skeptical the United States can change the tide in Afghanistan.

“I don’t see a game-changing stratagem in this,” he said. “I just think it’s just going to further embroil us in Afghanistan.”

Proponents of a troop surge, meanwhile, assert that increasing U.S. presence in the country is simply an insurance cost for preventing another attack on American soil.

“From an American point of view, if I were the president I would have troops in Afghanistan as long as it took to protect the homeland from another 9/11,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP opens door to holding Kavanaugh committee vote this week Press: Judge Kavanaugh must withdraw Kavanaugh: 'I will not be intimidated into withdrawing' MORE (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday. 

Scott Worden, director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace, said maintaining or adding to the U.S. presence is worth the cost compared to what could happen if the U.S. pulled out.

“Iraq provides a cautionary example,” he said. “Obviously the political situation is different, but once we withdrew all our military presence, and then we had to send them back in.”

Still, he added, U.S. support is not a “blank check” for the Afghan government.

“The cost needs to be managed, and the Afghan government should do more to reduce corruption and improve the management of security forces,” he said.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCongress must use bipartisan oversight as the gold standard The Hill's Morning Report — Ford, Kavanaugh to testify Thursday as another accuser comes forward Trump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote MORE (R-Ariz.), who was a fierce critic of the drawdown during the Obama administration, said Tuesday he “absolutely” supports the Pentagon proposal, which he expects the administration to send to him “very soon.”

“It’s very much needed,” said McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The situation is eroding and Americans are dying because of the last eight years of Obama’s failed leading from behind.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), meanwhile, argued the potential increase in troops in Afghanistan is another reason for Congress to debate a new authorization for the use of military force.

“The commitment of additional ground troops is a very ominous sign of what is to come and what is necessary for the Congress to do if we’re going to have this escalating commitment.”