House Republicans sound the alarm on Taliban deal

Top Republicans in the House are expressing concerns over the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban, with lawmakers cautioning the insurgents won’t live up to their end of the bargain and arguing the agreement puts the country’s national security at risk.

The disagreement marks yet another area of foreign policy where President Trump’s usual allies in Congress are willing to break with the president and do so publicly. 

Defense hawks, in particular, are concerned the agreement sets the stage for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan within months, that thousands of Taliban prisoners could be released in the coming weeks and that enforcement mechanisms are being kept from the American public. 

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 Republican in the lower chamber, has been among the most vocal critics. She has sounded alarms that the agreement lacks a disclosed verification mechanism and commitment from the Taliban to renounce al Qaeda. 

“I’ve expressed my serious concerns about the lack of verification mechanism, about the commitment and the agreement that we would go to zero and primarily about the fact that what we have here are a number of promises by the Taliban,” Cheney, whose father, Dick Cheney, was vice president at the start of the Afghanistan War, told The Hill. 

“Many of them are promises that have been made before, and I think that the decisions about American troop levels in Afghanistan have to be made based on America’s national security interests, not based on empty promises from the Taliban and an agreement that doesn’t have any disclosed verification mechanism,” she added.

Trump is hailing the deal as a major achievement and a fulfillment of his 2016 campaign pledge to end so-called endless wars. He spoke on the phone Tuesday with the Taliban’s chief negotiator, the first known conversation between a U.S. president and the Taliban since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

“We had a good conversation. We’ve agreed there’s no violence,” Trump said of his call with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is also the co-founder of the Taliban. “We don’t want violence. We’ll see what happens. They’re dealing with Afghanistan, but we’ll see what happens.”

Under the deal signed Saturday, the U.S. military must decrease troop levels to 8,600 in 135 days. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday he gave the U.S. commander in Afghanistan approval to start drawing down within 10 days.

The deal also lays out a timeline for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 14 months if the Taliban lives up to its commitments. Defense officials have insisted that any drawdown below 8,600 will be “conditions based.”

In exchange for the withdrawal, the Taliban committed to “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”

The Taliban also said it would tell its members “not to cooperate” with those who threaten the United States and prevent groups and people endangering the United States from “recruiting, training and fundraising” in its territory. 

“The Taliban has been saying the same thing for years, and in this agreement they don’t take steps to renounce al Qaeda, they don’t take steps to do many of the things that they would have to do if they were serious, and I think it’s important for us to make sure we don’t rely on empty promises from a terrorist group,” Cheney said.

The GOP has generally been in lockstep with Trump throughout his presidency, but foreign policy, and in particular U.S. troop movements, has been an area where Republicans have been willing to push back. In early 2019, when Trump tried to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and reports circulated he would try the same in Afghanistan, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution warning against a “precipitous withdrawal” in either country.

When Trump again tried to withdraw from Syria in October, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution rebuking the move.

For the Afghanistan deal, one of the most controversial aspects is a stipulation for a prisoner swap before talks begin between the Taliban and Afghan government. The deal says up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and up to 1,000 Afghan government prisoners “will be released by March 10,” something Afghan President Ashraf Ghani quickly rejected.

“I share the concerns of President Ghani on the release of 5,000 trained terrorists,” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who sits on both the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, told The Hill. “It’s just so dangerous and irresponsible, so I’m not in favor of the agreement.” 

To be sure, some Republicans, while wary, are saying to give the deal some time.

Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he has a “healthy amount of skepticism,” while Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), an Air Force veteran, similarly said he is skeptical that “we have an honorable, trustworthy people to negotiate with across the table.” 

But McCaul also said “we have to give this a chance,” while Bacon said he “applaud[s] the effort” and that the deal’s timeline provides room to see if it’s effective.

Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, said he thinks engagement with the Taliban is fine but noted the deal already hit a snag over the prisoner swap.

“We’ve been there for 19 years, but we can’t give away the store to do it,” he said. “So it’s kind of you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t, right? You’re damned if you do because you’re cutting a deal with the devil, but damned if you don’t because then the war just rattles on.” 

The administration has acknowledged there are annexes to the deal not being released publicly. In a briefing ahead of the deal’s signing, a senior administration official insisted the annexes “don’t contain any additional commitments by the United States whatsoever” and that they only lay out implementation and verification procedures.

As violence in Afghanistan ticked up and the Afghan government rejected the prisoner swap, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fended off criticism of the deal. 

“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the habits of old days are hard to break, and this will be a bumpy road going forward,” Pompeo said Monday night on Fox News.

Pompeo also insisted the withdrawal timeline is “fundamentally different than what the Obama administration did” because it comes within the context of the Taliban deal and that there are no “secret side deals.”

“Members of Congress will get to see the two classified implementation military elements of this, but the deal is laid out there for the world to see, and now it’s the diplomatic and military task of the United States to deliver on the president’s two commitments,” Pompeo said. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) encouraged GOP lawmakers to review the documents, saying “you want to know all of the details before someone makes an opinion about it” during a press conference on Tuesday. 

But Cheney — who raised the issue during an unrelated Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday — said the annexes transmitted to Congress are not as strong as Pompeo framed them during interviews over the weekend.

“I will say that after reviewing the documents my concerns remain about the extent to which there’s no disclosed verification mechanism, there’s no renunciation of al Qaeda,” she told The Hill on Tuesday. “It’s still a situation where, you know, we have to ensure that our decisions are being made based on security and not empty promises.”

Tags Afghanistan Donald Trump Joe Wilson John Katko Kevin McCarthy Liz Cheney Mark Esper Mike Pompeo Taliban

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