Amid indications President Donald Trump will move to slash the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq before he leaves office, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attacked the idea in a blistering Senate floor speech Monday.
McConnell has been almost unfailingly loyal to Trump, but the Kentucky Republican has openly pushed back when he has seen Trump's actions as possibly threatening U.S. security.
McConnell, in his speech, gave Trump credit for battlefield victories over terrorists and for other geopolitical successes. But the senator’s principal point was that hurriedly extracting most U.S. troops from war zones by a date certain would jeopardize hard-fought military gains, embolden and strengthen America’s enemies in those countries, give U.S. adversaries everywhere a propaganda coup and weaken U.S. partners and allies.
“The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011, which fueled — fueled — the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism,” McConnell said. “It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”
Trump reportedly could announce as soon as this week that he will speed up planned withdrawals of U.S. troops. He is considering cutting by Jan. 15 the roughly 4,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 and reducing their numbers in Iraq from 3,000 down to 2,500.
The Pentagon issued a so-called warning order to commanders to begin planning for the drawdown, according to CNN.
Such a move was widely anticipated after Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Nov. 9. Esper, in his final days in office, had put up stiff internal resistance to a too-rapid drawdown of U.S. troops, according to news reports.
Christopher Miller, who succeeded Esper and is now the acting Defense secretary, issued a Nov. 14 memorandum to the force that said, in a mixed message, that America's overseas wars are not over and but that “Now it’s time to come home.”
McConnell was one of the few members of either party to speak out publicly Monday as reports emerged about the specific options under review for withdrawing U.S. troops before the Trump administration ends.
McConnell reminded his Senate colleagues on Monday how he had stood against Trump in a similar circumstance last year.
In February 2019, as Trump was openly discussing sharp cutbacks in U.S. troop deployments in Syria and Afghanistan, McConnell sponsored a resolution (S1) saying a “precipitous” withdrawal would be unwise — and the Senate adopted it 70-26.
Likewise, McConnell said Monday that a rapid withdrawal of large numbers of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would strengthen the Taliban and al Qaeda, leave America's Afghan partners in the lurch, hurt the prospects for women and girls in that country and embolden Iran.
The U.S. retreat “would be broadcast around the world as a symbol of U.S. defeat and humiliation and of victory for Islamic extremism,” he said.
David Lerman contributed to this story.