Iran is likely to attack more Western targets in the Middle East soon, and the United States will need to respond, Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Thursday.
“I expect Iran will take further provocative actions in the coming weeks,” Thornberry said on a C-SPAN “Newsmakers” program set to air Friday night.
Noting Iran’s leaders have faced a month of demonstrations in which hundreds of Iranians have reportedly died, Thornberry predicted Iranian rulers will “lash out and try to find an external enemy.”
He added that Iran has yet to respond to an attack on one of its oil tankers in October and that retaliation may be coming.
“I do think it’s important to have a response,” Thornberry said, without specifying any particular type of military strike, covert action or other step. Iran is “going to have to have some sort of pushback or they will continue to be more aggressive.”
Thornberry has long been the House Republican Caucus’ leading voice on national security issues. He has announced plans to retire next year.
Thornberry also made the case Thursday for continued U.S. military deployments in Syria and said President Donald Trump needs to explain the U.S. involvement there to the American public. On Afghanistan, Thornberry pushed back against a war-weary zeitgeist and said terrorist threats in that country remain “significant.”
Iran’s military and its proxy militias have unleashed a bevy of belligerent actions in the Mideast in the past year: downing a U.S. drone, attacking commercial ships at sea, bombing a Saudi Arabian oil facility, flying armed drones over U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, and launching rockets on U.S. troops, to name a few.
“Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region have increased in recent months,” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said at the same hearing that Iran had better be “very, very cautious,” suggesting a U.S. military response was a distinct possibility.
In June, Trump called off a strike against Iran at the last minute. Critics on the left and right said that pullback only emboldened that country’s rulers.
Some 14,000 U.S. troops have been sent to the region in response to Iran’s actions, and thousands more may go. But U.S. guns are quiet for now.
When Trump tweeted a year ago that all 2,000 or so U.S. troops in Syria would be leaving, Thornberry told CQ Roll Call it was a “mistake.”
Trump did not follow through fully on that announcement, although U.S. force levels in Syria did decrease in subsequent months.
In October, Trump extracted U.S. troops from northern Syria, and Turkey invaded the area. Other U.S. forces remain in southern Syria, and some American troops are now protecting oil fields from Islamic State fighters.
The upshot is that a little more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel are in the country, about the same number as before Trump’s withdrawal.
Asked what Trump owes the American people regarding Syria, Thornberry told “Newsmakers”: “Clear consistent explanations for what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
Trump, like former President Barack Obama, has not provided a “high-level explanation of the mission” in Syria or other U.S. war zones, and that has resulted in waning public support, Thornberry said.
He said it is important that some U.S. troops remain in Syria, though he described the country as a “morass” of multiple belligerents.
Thornberry said it is easier to tally the cost in lives and money of the 18-year-old Afghanistan war than to count the losses that he believes may have been prevented by fighting terrorists there and possibly averting another large-scale attack in the United States.
He said the threat that he believes justifies the U.S. presence in Afghanistan still exists.
“I believe, based on very good information, that there is still a significant terrorist threat in Afghanistan that threatens our homeland,” he said.
Thornberry’s comments reinforcing the importance of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan came the same week The Washington Post launched a series of articles contrasting U.S. officials’ rosy public depictions of progress in that war with their private worries as expressed to a government auditor for an official lessons-learned report.
House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., on Wednesday said he would support hearings on the issues raised in the stories, which also spurred Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and others in Congress to push for legislation that would trigger a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Trump administration officials were dispatched to Capitol Hill this week to brief lawmakers on Afghanistan. And Defense Department officials said they are weighing options for reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from the current level of about 13,000 to just over half that.
Thornberry, who visited the country in October as the lone Republican in a delegation with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told “Newsmakers” that it “may be appropriate” to reduce U.S. troop levels, but only if conditions warrant it and the drawdown is “consistent with our mission to protect our homeland.”
He also said he would expect some “reciprocity” from the Taliban if the United States took that step.
But, he added, “I don’t trust the Taliban as far as I can throw them.”