Senate Armed Services members from both parties worried aloud at a hearing Tuesday that looming U.S. troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan could risk squandering years of costly effort.
The senators expressions of concern came a day after the Senate voted 70-26 to approve a resolution that would oppose a “precipitous” withdrawal from Syria or Afghanistan. And it came on the same day as President Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, which is expected to include a call to all but terminate America’s nearly two decades of post-9/11 wars.
The committee’s chairman, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, signaled support for the president’s withdrawal plans, as long as they are carefully executed, but warned that “ISIS and al-Qaida are still active in the region and threaten our homeland.”
By contrast, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the committee’s top Democrat, said the president’s decision-making has been “anything but thoughtful and deliberate.” And Reed fretted about “the cost of getting it wrong.”
Martin Heinrich said he is alarmed about the possible fate of Kurdish fighters whom the United States has supported. The consequences for them, the New Mexico Democrat said, could be “morally terrible.”
Likewise, Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said if Kurds are “slaughtered” in the wake of a U.S. troop withdrawal, it would be a “stain on the honor of this country that will persist” and will discourage potential allies in the future from siding with the United States.
And Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, said, “The concerns in this city are bipartisan concerns.”
General walks tightrope
The committee met to hear testimony from Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.
In his testimony, Votel had to convey two messages: the U.S. military’s assessment that ISIS, despite loss of most of its territory in Syria and Iraq, remains a threat that could revive if U.S. troops leave; and his fidelity to carrying out the president’s decision to soon start bringing U.S. troops home from Syria.
Votel testified that a U.S. military withdrawal from Syria will be “coordinated” and “deliberate” and military operations against the Islamic State in the region will continue.
“We will continue our military pressure in support of our national objectives until they are met,” Votel told the committee. A “vigilant offensive” is still needed, he said.
On the other hand, Votel said he expects ISIS will have “renewed vigor” once U.S. troops leave. And he said he concurs with the conclusion of a Monday Pentagon inspector general report that warned ISIS could become resurgent in the wake of U.S. withdrawal.
Votel said he was “not consulted” before the president announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
The withdrawal from Syria is neither “time-based” nor “conditions-based.” In other words, he said, he does not have a deadline and Central Command does not have to satisfy any criteria before departing.
The absence of conditions is noteworthy, because members of Congress, especially Republicans, repeatedly insisted during the Obama administration that any troop withdrawals from Iraq or Afghanistan be based on conditions on the ground.
“The fact is, the president has made a decision,” Votel said.
Votel also confirmed the intelligence community estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS-associated people remain in Syria and Iraq. The figure, he said, includes not only fighters but also supporters, and officials have “low to moderate confidence” in the estimate’s accuracy. Of that total, about 1,500 ISIS fighters are combating coalition forces in the Middle Euphrates River Valley near the Syria-Iraq border, he said.
Questions about 22,000 troops
About 3,000 U.S. troops are said to be stationed in Syria, and about 14,000 are in Afghanistan.
Trump announced in December that “all” U.S. forces would be leaving Syria “now.”
But he subsequently said the withdrawal would be done in a deliberate fashion. U.S. troops in Syria have yet to start leaving Syria, and officials subsequently have said the military exodus would unfold over several months.
Trump also tasked the Pentagon late last year with making plans to cut the U.S. force in Afghanistan in half.
In a Feb. 3 interview with CBS News, Trump said America would still retain forces in Iraq who would be ready to strike a resurgent ISIS in Syria or Iraq, where about 5,000 U.S. troops are deployed. Asked about using Iraq as a platform for monitoring the Middle East, Votel declined to discuss it in open session. Iraq’s president has protested Trump’s comments as a usurpation of Iraq’s sovereignty.
Senate Armed Services planned to meet with Votel in a classified setting Tuesday afternoon.
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